Management Lessons from Honest Abe

Our forefathers have plenty of sound advice that’s easily applied to business. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 historical tome, “Team of Rivals” is about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. She centers her narrative around Lincoln’s decision to bring his three vanquished presidential competitors (William Henry Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates) and others who opposed him into his Cabinet. History is rife with lessons applicable to all walks of life but, sadly, it’s mostly politicians who are students of history.

Although many of us are intimately familiar with the Lincoln era, Goodwin raises many important and lesser remembered points that bear repeating from this period 160 years ago:

  1. Lincoln’s competitors for the presidency were all formidable, better known, and better funded. Lincoln was a genius political tactician who shrewdly built alliances and strategized to garner his electoral win.
  2. Politicians in the mid-nineteenth century were just as ambitious to win office as they are today. The four men vying for the Republican nomination in 1860 faced an absolute s!#*show, yet they still desperately wanted the job. By the time Lincoln took office, seven southern states had already seceded from the Union and began the Confederacy. The Civil War was looming large.
  3. Lincoln’s chief competitor, William Henry Seward, was viewed as a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. After Lincoln appointed him Secretary of State, it took some time before Seward stopped considering himself the rightful president. The modern parallel is Barack Obama’s appointment of his rival, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State. In both cases, the Secretaries of State became ardent supporters and friends of the President.
  4. Lincoln’s gaunt, awkward appearance bolstered his reputation for moroseness. However, not only did Lincoln tell rollickingly funny stories and inhabit the life of the party role, but more importantly, he exuded a self-confident magnanimity that enabled him to both make friends with enemies and embrace men who believed they were better suited for his job. In fact, Lincoln ultimately fired his brilliant Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, who was actively campaigning for his boss’s job. However, Lincoln waited to remove Chase until the Treasury was on solid footing, he had an able replacement (the brilliant William Pitt Fessenden), and the political winds supported it. Putting aside his ego, Lincoln later appointed Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court because he was the best person for the job.
  5. Any wartime President faces immense challenges. Presiding over a Civil War that cleaved families between the opposing sides was even more of a trial, both emotionally and politically. Lincoln spent his Presidency expertly managing and fine-tuning his cabinet with an exquisite ear to the changing political tides of the various factions of the time as well as the changing public sentiment.

Although these lessons from history are more opaque than, say, Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept in “Good to Great”, the study of history yields valuable insights into human behavior that should influence today’s companies. When CEOs list their favorite books, they tend to converge on the seminal business titles like, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, “The Lean Startup”, and “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. CEO’s may also find inspiration from the Great Businessperson biographies from leaders like Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Sam Walton, and Phil Knight. With the exception of the Sun Tzu’s 6th Century BC military strategy book, “The Art of War,” history books seldom make the cut when business leaders seek guidance. That’s a shame.

Making sound decisions about what to build and what not to build is exceedingly challenging for tech companies for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to develop a set of meaningful metrics to rank opportunities relative to one another. Second, it’s difficult to capture and coalesce input from all of the relevant stakeholders. Consequently, many companies make gut-level decisions. It’s not surprising that teams are often composed of people who think alike because it lubricates the decision-making process when everyone agrees. The results of sycophantic decision-making, however, are almost never good. Seward put it more eloquently when he remarked, “A Cabinet which should agree at once on every such question would be no better or safer than one counsellor.” (Kearns Goodwin, pp. 746-747)

We needn’t ask, “What would Abe do?,” because we already know. He assembled a team of people who didn’t necessarily agree with him and actively solicited their frank opinions. When he yielded to the will of his Cabinet it was because they convinced him that the course they advised was judicious and appropriate. Although Lincoln’s team didn’t look different – they were all white guys and abolitionists, they thought differently – they had opposing viewpoints on the Missouri Compromise, Fugitive Slave Act, containment of slavery, Reconstruction, and many other issues of the time. Nowadays, diversity of opinion on a team suggests that the team should also be different; the strongest teams are composed of people of mixed gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Although it requires care and attention as well as a self-confident leader to support a team of rivals, the benefits are proven and immense. Lincoln hired a team of rivals and saved the Union. We should follow his example and take a lesson from history.