Lincoln’s School of ManagementMichael Falco
By NANCY F. KOEHN
Published: January 26, 2013The legacy of Abraham Lincoln hangs over every American president. To free a people, to preserve the Union, “to bind up the nation’s wounds”: Lincoln’s presidency, at a moment of great moral passion in the country’s history, is a study in high-caliber leadership.
Essay: Leadership Lessons From the Shackleton Expedition (December 25, 2011)
Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Yuri Gripas/ReutersIn this season of all things Lincoln — when Steven Spielberg is probably counting his Oscars already — executives, entrepreneurs and other business types might consider dusting off their history books and taking a close look at what might be called the Lincoln school of management.
Even before “Lincoln” the movie came along, there was a certain cult of leadership surrounding the 16th president. C.E.O.’s and lesser business lights have long sought inspiration from his life and work. But today, as President Obama embarks on a new term and business leaders struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing global economy, the lessons of Lincoln seem as fresh as ever. They demonstrate the importance of resilience, forbearance, emotional intelligence, thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument. They also show the value of staying true to a larger mission.
“Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations,” Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, said in an e-mail. Lincoln, he said, “always looked upward and always called American citizens to a higher road and to a purpose bigger than themselves. He did this by listening carefully to those both inside and outside of his immediate circle and sphere of influence. Listening, always being present and authenticity are essential leadership qualities whether one is leading a country in wartime or a company during a period of transformation.”
As a historian at Harvard Business School, I have been a student of Lincoln for more than a decade. I have written a case study and several articles about his presidency and talked extensively about him to business executives and entrepreneurs. The film “Lincoln,” which follows his efforts to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment, making slavery unconstitutional, offers ample evidence of his ability to lead. But to me, his earlier experience in drafting and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation offers one of the best ways to appreciate his strengths as a leader.<img height="263" alt="The Battle of Gaines’s Mill, as re-enacted in 2012 in Elizabethtown, Pa. No retouching or Photoshop processes were used on these images, with the exception of basic color correction. More photographs are at
Before and after he signed the proclamation, 150 years ago this month, Lincoln confronted a string of military setbacks, intense political opposition and his own depression and self-doubts. In the summer of 1862, Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee attacked “repeatedly, relentlessly, with a courage bordering on recklessness,” as the historian James M. McPherson has written. Union supporters realized that the Civil War — originally envisioned as a short, swift conflict — would be much longer and bloodier than imagined.
Northern newspapers and politicians assailed the administration for incompetence. The number of Union Army volunteers dwindled. Abolitionists, who since the war’s start had urged Lincoln to move aggressively against slavery, grew increasingly frustrated.
All of this bore down on the president. When he learned that George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had retreated after a series of conflicts known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lincoln described himself “as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live.” And, personally, the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, five months earlier still weighed heavily on both the president and his wife.
Yet despite all of his mental suffering, Lincoln never gave way to his darkest fears. His resilience and commitment to preserve the Union helped sustain him.
The ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards is vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders. Ari Bloom, a strategic adviser to consumer-related companies and a former student of mine, put it this way: “Nothing prepares you for the emotional ups and downs that come with starting a business. There will be obstacles, big and small, that come at you every day, from personnel issues to supplier delays, to late payments or even hurricanes.” Throughout, entrepreneurs must maintain their professional composure while staying true to their vision and their integrity, he said.
“Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances,” Mr. Bloom said. “Some of his ability to navigate such difficult terrain was about emotional intelligence and the deep faith he nurtured about his vision. But some of it was also about how he gathered advice and information from a wide range of people, including those who did not agree with him. This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing.”
Lincoln had long opposed the expansion of slavery, declaring it wrong, morally and politically, because it violated the rights of all people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness set forth in the Declaration of Independence. But he had also made it clear that preserving the Union was more important than trying to abolish slavery head on.
In the early summer of 1862, events conspired to change his perspective. There was McClellan’s humiliating retreat, the mounting overall toll of the war and growing support in the North for attacking slavery. His earlier concerns were overridden by exigency.
“Things had gone on from bad to worse,” Lincoln recalled later, “until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game!”
Lincoln’s ability to shift gears during hard times — without giving up his ultimate goal — is a vital lesson for leaders operating in today’s turbulence. When I teach the case, many executives comment on the importance of shaping one’s tactics to changing circumstances.
Sometime in late June or early July of 1862, Lincoln began drafting what would become the Emancipation Proclamation. On July 22, he told his full cabinet that he had “resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice,” but rather “to lay the subject matter of a proclamation before them.” He had decided that, as of Jan. 1, 1863, all people held as slaves in states in rebellion against the United States government would be declared forever free.
Lincoln had always been a slow, deliberate thinker, examining an issue from all sides. The cabinet was divided over the proclamation, but at this point he was unlikely to be dissuaded. Nevertheless, when Secretary of State William H. Seward suggested that the president wait for a Union victory before issuing the proclamation, lest it seem “the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help,” Lincoln agreed.
In mid-September 1862, after a bloody victory at Antietam in which more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded, Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation public. Practically, it would free none of the almost four million slaves held in the Confederacy, where it could not be enforced; it made no claims to liberate slaves held in the border states that were not in rebellion against the United States. And it did not free slaves held in certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by Union forces.
But as Lincoln understood, the proclamation was a radical act. In declaring certain slaves free as an act of military necessity, it transformed the meaning and stakes of the Civil War. What started as a conflict to save the Union as it had existed since the 1787 Constitutional Convention had become a contest to save a new, different kind of United States — one in which slavery was permanently abolished.
Americans reacted strongly to the proclamation. Abolitionists greeted it with acclaim, but many in Lincoln’s own party called it unconstitutional. Union Democrats condemned it; the Democratic-leaning New York World said Lincoln was “adrift on a current of radical fanaticism.”
In the South, President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy called the proclamation an effort to incite servile insurrection, saying it supplied additional reasons for the Confederacy to fight for its independence. Foreign response was also critical, partly because the proclamation posed a potential threat to cotton supplies. That November, the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation, the war’s huge casualties and the government’s deteriorating military fortunes combined to hand the president’s party major reverses in the midterm elections.
Faced with these and other setbacks, Lincoln grew more depressed, but his commitment to the proclamation did not waver. When he signed the final document into law, he knew he was altering a landscape that had become much larger than when he became president. And he realized that he must communicate his own steadfast commitment to a larger purpose.
Throughout the war, Lincoln was able to experience a range of emotions without acting on them rashly or in other ways that compromised his larger mission. This ability offers another powerful lesson for modern leaders.
Consider Lincoln’s emotional state after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863: Lee’s retreating forces had escaped south into Virginia and out of the Union Army’s reach. Lincoln was frustrated and furious. He composed an angry letter to Gen. George C. Meade, who had commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg, writing him that Lee “was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war.” He added: “Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
But Lincoln decided not to mail the letter. Instead, he placed it in an envelope labeled “To Gen. Meade, never sent or signed.” There is no question that Lincoln had cause to lament the general’s inaction, especially in the larger context of the president’s early experience with Union Army officials, but he recognized that he couldn’t afford to alienate him at such a crucial time.
When I work with executives, I often say: “Imagine if e-mail had existed in Lincoln’s time and he had hit ‘send’ because he was distressed. The course of history might have taken a very different turn.”
It is crucial for today’s leaders to practice this kind of forbearance. Much of what leaders experience every day is emotionally difficult. Instantaneous, round-the-clock communication like e-mail, texting and social media often stir up even more turbulence within.
Executives face the challenge of navigating their own and others’ emotions with forethought and consideration. As Lincoln realized, the first action that comes to mind is not always the wisest.
In November 1863, at the new cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln outlined the important moment in which America found itself and which he had helped create. In 272 words, he laid out the stakes of the Civil War, asserting that its bloody toll was necessary in order that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
When I discuss the Gettysburg Address with executives and entrepreneurs, they often compare the huge changes wrought by the Civil War to aspects of organizational transformation and their own roles in communicating with stakeholders.
Executives including Anne M. Mulcahy, the former C.E.O. of Xerox, often find that decisions made in the best long-term interest of a company often conflict with the shorter-term demands of shareholders. In 2000, against the counsel of advisers, Ms. Mulcahy refused to declare bankruptcy as Xerox ran up nearly $18 billion in debt. She faced criticism and skepticism as she worked to reinvent the organization, but she remained focused on restoring company profitability, innovation, competitiveness and efficiency.
Lincoln often traveled to battlefields to visit Union troops, and he held open “office” hours in the White House to receive interested citizens — and their countless requests. Like Lincoln, Ms. Mulcahy knew she could not lead from behind closed office doors. She often went into the field to speak with executives, employees and, most important, customers. “Even while Rome was burning,” she said in a 2006 speech, “people wanted to know what the city of the future would look like.”
Today she is credited with leading a very successful business turnaround.
Executives often point to the strength that Lincoln found to bear the death and destruction of the war and to weather intense opposition and still not relinquish his mission. If there is one point when Lincoln discovered his own leadership backbone, it was surely in conceiving and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and then committing himself and the country to its broader consequences.
When I discuss my Lincoln case study with executives, that is one of the most powerful lessons they take away. As Kelly Close, founder and president of Close Concerns, a health care information firm, said in an e-mail, “Being responsible for even a small company and all the people and issues involved in such management forces you to come to terms with yourself and whether you can rise to the challenge — not once but many times.” Lincoln, she added, “was able to do this in a way that amazes and inspires me.”
On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox, Va., Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, head of the Union forces. Six days later, Lincoln was dead. And the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect two years earlier, would become part of a broader process of emancipation that culminated in ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
Lincoln, said Mr. Schultz of Starbucks, “taught us that whether you are a business leader, an entrepreneur or a government official, one’s foremost responsibility is to serve all of the people,” and not just one’s self-interest. “Lincoln knew that success is best when shared.”
Lincoln was able to learn and grow amid great calamity. His story, like no other, demonstrates that leaders do not just make the moment; they meet it and, in the process, are changed by it.