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Six Leadership Characteristics That Defined Abraham Lincoln



In a new book on fixing the U.S. health care system, my good friend Dr. David Lawrence discusses the need for leadership and discusses the attributes of some great leaders.  I was particularly struck by his comments about the very strong leadership capabilities of one of our most admired presidents; Abraham Lincoln.  Specifically, Lawrence focuses on the way Lincoln put his cabinet together and how he interacted with that group as well as with Congress, the soldiers in the war and his constituents.

Here are six characteristics of Lincoln, as described by Dr. Lawrence, which are the foundation of his incredibly strong leadership capabilities.

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#1. Lincoln Was First and Foremost a Student

He was deeply introspective, read widely, and completely self-taught.  For example, before and during the civil war, he read extensively about military history and strategy in order to help him make decisions in regard to that ghastly war.  Because of his student-like attitude, and how he valued learning, he trusted his instincts and his judgments very strongly.

#2. He Was Unabashedly Human

He was not afraid to show his emotions and he was deeply passionate about issues.  He took every opportunity to interact with his constituents and anyone else that he believed had insights or knowledge that could be relevant to the problems he was pondering.  For example, during the Civil War, he frequently visited the troops on the front lines, listening to their concerns and gaining insights into the challenges he faced and what he might do about them.

#3. Lincoln Was Willing to Stand Alone

It was typical to find him at odds with those that were very close to him and he also often experienced criticism and scorn from his critics and enemies.  He was unwavering and had a deep sense of responsibility to address the deeply decisive issue the nation was facing; slavery and the Civil War.   On the other hand, Lawrence points out that because he was so objective and so forthright with people, he typically gained their total respect and friendship, even though they may have been of a completely different attitude than he was on key issues.

#4. He Was a Hands-On Leader

He often visited the places where work was being done that related to the issues he was wrestling with, asking numerous questions and gaining insights from those who had the most knowledge about a situation.

#5. He Had the Ability to Defuse a Tense Situation

He was a masterful storyteller and often used humor.  In fact, those close to him portray him as being capable of being very funny while at the same time being eloquent and persuasive in his arguments on issues.  Virtually always the stories he told and examples he cited were laced with numerous anecdotes and jokes.

#6. He Surrounded Himself with Very Strong People

Even though many of the individuals Lincoln picked for key positions were in fact his rivals, he valued them because they were strong, independent, experienced and vocal.  He actively sought out their perspectives and respected their capabilities.  On the other hand, his independence and trust in his judgment gave him the confidence to learn from others, seek their advice and still make the decisions that he needed to make based on his own personal assessments of the situation.

An obvious question is: Do we have examples of leaders of the Lincoln caliber today?  I can’t come up with a good one, but that may be because modern media is so pervasive, and there are so many aspects of performance/behavior that draw comment today, that it is very difficult to spot the really exceptional.  On the other hand, maybe Lincoln was really just that that outstanding!

One thing is for sure; the attributes described above are absolutely core to strong leadership and Lincoln provides a terrific example of what we all need to strive to be.

Images: ”WASHINGTON, D.C. – JULY 29: The statue of Abraham Lincoln is shown at the Lincoln Memorial on July 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C. The memorial was dedicated in 1922.  / Shutterstock.com

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The Author:

Bob is an author, public speaker and retired executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO) of Microsoft Corporation. Before joining Microsoft, he spent twenty six years at Procter & Gamble, the last five of those years as senior vice president of advertising and information services. Since retirement, Bob has divided his time between working as a consultant for his own Herbold Group LLC and as writer and public speaker focusing on leadership. Bob has written three books. His latest, "What's Holding You Back? 10 Bold Steps That Define Gutsy Leaders" was released February 2011 by Wiley/Jossey-Bass. http://www.bobherbold.com

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  • http://www.ahaingroup.com/ Niall Devitt

    Hi Bob,