Abraham Unrivaled

Aug 03, 2010 2 Comments by

I highly recommend that Change Leaders read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Goodwin’s book is a great study in how a leader can bring people who appear on the surface to be challenging the leader’s positions into an effective team to confront common challenges.   Lincoln’s challenges were surely more vast and historically significant than anything modern Change Leaders will face, but his approach absolutely applies.

The author goes far beyond the simple adage of “…one should keep their friends close and their enemies closer“. She gives dozens of examples where Lincoln leveraged clarity, alignment, raw political power and the sound qualities he respected in his peers to accomplish what was in their mutual interest.   While personal ambition may have lead a lesser leader to cave in to the urge to compete politically, Lincoln chose the much harder route and used an innovative, high-risk approach.

Learning from Lincoln

Here are a few guidelines Change Leaders can draw from Lincoln’s approach as expressed in Goodwin’s book:

  • Be Honest: Decide early on how your personal and professional agendas fit relative to the change you are leading.  If there is not a good fit then one of the two competing interests will suffer.  You will naturally be most effective if your goals align with the change.  By contrast, it will be hard to keep your hidden agenda in check if it runs counter to the change.
  • Don’t Retreat: Instead of guessing what your competitors are thinking or planning – go find them, seek to understand their positions and define where you can best engage them in areas where you have mutual interests.  Be frank about where you disagree and stick to those positions for which you have strong logic and the authority to execute.
  • Keep them Close: Lincoln used his gift for reading people’s intentions and interests to his advantage.  Know what makes your rivals tick.  Know what matters to them.  Hint: Just like Lincoln did, you will probably have to spend face time with these people to get the best insight.  Know what they are REALLY trying to accomplish and where you can bring yourself to help them succeed – do it.

Notable Rivals appointed to Lincoln’s cabinet included (from Left to Right): His eventual Republican Secretary of State William H. Seward of New York, Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase – Republican of Ohio, Whig Attorney General Edward Bates and former Democrat Simon Cameron.

  • Involve Your Rivals While Staying Accountable: The President brought his rivals into the process by appointing them to key Cabinet posts and letting them disagree virulently behind closed doors as long as they presented a unified front to the nation.  He opened himself up to criticism by maintaining full accountability.  He also dampened this risk a bit by bringing his rivals into the decision-making process.  In this way, many of his principal critics shared accountability for tough decisions because they were clearly a part of making them.
  • Above All, Execute: Lincoln did not apologize for being in charge.  He didn’t ask others to shoulder the burden of decision-making or point fingers when his decisions resulted in failure.  If you have the authority to execute – do it.  Just like Lincoln, you will probably be blamed or rewarded based on the results anyway.

Lincoln’s Cabinet was filled with contention and intrigue – but made decisions that would have been impossible with a “Team of Yes Men”

By weaving together the narrative of personal biography with the frank analysis of political and tactical execution, Goodwin paints an accurate portrait of Lincoln as a brilliant, troubled, gentle, diligent, effective and deeply caring leader.

As a political junkie and a person involved with the process of change daily, this is still one of my favorite books…


Questions for Chatter:

  1. In your opinion, was Lincoln really inviting a diversity of thought or just hedging his bets?
  2. How dangerous can it be when you keep your rivals too close?  Have you seen approach this backfire?

Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “Abraham Unrivaled”

  1. Tweets that mention Abraham Unrivaled | theBigRocks of Change -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by chihos. chihos said: What can #leaders learn from how Abraham Lincoln built an effective #team of rivals? http://tinyurl.com/3ytrlht for #ASP #CIO #pm #business […]

  2. pat yankowich says:

    check #2 questions for structure…yes, it backfired yesterday!

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