With the publicity garnered through Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln and the related book Team of Rivals by noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, new attention has been focused on how President Abraham Lincoln moved the country forward during a time of great crisis. These media allow us to reflect on events of the past and determine what lessons can be learned and applied in today’s world.

There is no doubt that the world has changed significantly in the 150 years since the 1860s. One of the most striking story lines of the book is how children and adults died from diseases that we don’t even think of today. But one thing has not changed. When you want to accomplish big things, you have to work with other people. And people are complex creatures who have different motivations, wants, and desires. Lincoln has certainly gone down in history as great president, but what was it that made him so successful? I would argue that it was his amazing ability to understand people and his skill in navigating a variety of factions.  As the title of the book states, Lincoln assembled a team of his rivals to serve in his cabinet – an idea copied by President Obama when he asked Hillary Clinton to serve as Secretary of State. Two men in particular were his chief political competitors for the Republican nomination in 1860- William Seward of New York and Salmon Chase of Ohio. Lincoln appointed Seward to be his Secretary of State and Chase to be his Secretary of the Treasury. While Seward quickly became one of Lincoln’s most trusted confidants, Chase focused on his own political aspirations. Despite this, Lincoln realized that to keep the country on track at a time of great crisis, he needed to include people who represented different factions even if those same people were trying to undermine him. At one critical juncture in late 1862 after the Union Army had experienced yet another difficult defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln faced a political crisis. The Congress wanted answers on the Union’s battlefield catastrophes. Chase happily scapegoated Seward by feeding rumors to the legislature that the Secretary of State had too much influence over Lincoln – often circumventing other members of the cabinet on major decisions. As the Congress became inflamed with the rumors, Seward offered his resignation. However, instead of acting immediately, Lincoln reflected and considered his options. He knew the rumors were untrue, but he couldn’t have the members of Congress turn against him. How Lincoln decided to proceed was brilliant. He invited key legislators to an emergency cabinet meeting where all concerns were to be addressed in the open. This gathering accomplished several goals:

1) It allowed the members of Congress to hear first-hand (not from the rumor machine) what the cabinet members were really thinking and feeling about how they functioned as a group.

2) It unified the cabinet members in supporting one another and Lincoln – as they didn’t want to see the legislative branch interfering with them as executive branch appointees.

3) It exposed Chase as self-interested and disingenuous – and both the legislators and cabinet members put him back in line.

In the end the political crisis was averted, and Seward remained as Secretary of State. By promoting direct, honest dialogue and bringing together different factions, Lincoln was able to move past petty personal squabbles and ego-based maneuvering. Had the President taken a different course such as personally isolating or reprimanding Chase, Lincoln risked alienating members of Congress, especially those who were political allies of Chase. Lincoln also realized that this internal strife was a distraction from the big issue at hand – preserving the Union. In many ways, it was Lincoln’s approach that cemented him as one of the greatest figures in United States history. He was an intent listener to different opinions and was not authoritarian in his style, dictating orders. However, this approach wasn’t always appreciated. One of Lincoln’s other rivals for the 1860 GOP nomination was Edward Bates of Missouri – who served in the cabinet as Attorney General. An entry in Bates’ diary “reveals frustration with Lincoln’s loose management style, which left the administration with ‘no system-no unity-no accountability-no subordination’” [Team of Rivals p. 674]. Even today, Bates’ desire for direction and order from Lincoln is what we sometime expect from a “leader”. However, a top-down approach often does not incorporate the full input and value of the people involved. Goodwin suggests that “Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in… difficult situations was rooted in acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways” [p. 609]. He would deal with stress by engaging  others with his storytelling, and amusing people with his anecdotes. A good reminder that we all need to find an activity or hobby that allows us to release tension and free our minds to think more clearly. Decisions that are made purely on emotion or in-the-moment don’t often let us consider the range of possibilities.

So as you go about your work and tackle the challenges that you face, remember to:

1) Take a-step-back and gain some perspective on the situation. Write down some overarching thoughts on a challenge you are working through. What is the real issue? Who is involved?

2) Listen to the people with whom you are working. What do they want to see happen? Draw a picture of each person (stick figures are acceptable) and write a few phrases about what is motivating them.

3) Think about the range of options to move an issue forward. Combine your thoughts with the variety of insights provided by the people with whom you are working  to map out a few possibilities of how to proceed.

By deliberately carving out the time to map a situation and develop options on moving forward, you can – in your own way – follow the approach of one of the great men of history. Also, remember to create time for yourself to relieve stress. Doing  so will allow for you to make decisions with a clearer mind. And thankfully as you chart a path forward, you do not have the weight of preserving the United States of America resting on your shoulders.

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