abraham lincoln

Episode 86: Team Of Rivals: The Strategic Lessons of Lincoln

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”.

Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th President of the United States until his assassination in 1865. During his time as President, he led the nation through one of the most traumatic experiences in its history, the Civil War. A deeply astute politician, Lincoln was a frontiersman and self-trained lawyer, and is a man from whom we can draw three key lessons to make us better strategists.

Lincoln was born in Kentucky and spent his early life on the Western frontier of that State. An eventful life eventually led him to the presidency of the United States at a deeply turbulent time. For an unrivalled look at Lincoln’s life, I strongly recommend reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. But the three key lessons I believe we can draw from his life and achievements and apply to our work are his belief in coopting his rivals, his modest, self-deprecating style, and his belief in steady consistency, driven by conviction.

Lincoln said, “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”. He famously pulled his former rivals into an eclectic and highly capable cabinet, turning one of his greatest critics, William Seward into his Secretary of State and subsequently one of his greatest supporters. This is a key consideration for the modern strategist, since in order to succeed we need to assemble a diverse team. There is a temptation to choose to work with like-minded individuals who share and echo your opinions and ideas, but Lincoln showed us the benefit of assembling a team of diverse experiences and diverging opinions. It is only through this type of team that you can bring forward creative ideas and test them by rounds of internal challenge and discussion. It is through this type of an approach that we develop our best ideas.

For this to work, the last thing you can do is be arrogant or self-important, two traits often associated with strategists. Lincoln was famously understated and self-deprecating, once asking, “if I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”. A plain-speaking man, Lincoln understood the importance of one’s actions rather than perceptions. He wrote that “character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing”. He was a firm believer in living a good life and working through others to achieve his goals. It was this style that kept his ambitious cabinet together as well as keeping key border states in the Union during the war. It was also the style that helped reconcile the country at the end of the war and begin the process of reconstruction, something he is revered for.

A pragmatist who made decisions based on the options available to him at the time, Lincoln was also a man of deep conviction who knew that he was in the right and worked subtly to achieve his goals, no matter how long it took. He once said “I am a slow walker, but I never walk back”. An abolitionist, he did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until late in the war when victory was assured, all as part of a successful effort to keep the border states in the Union. He believed in thinking things through thoroughly, but in moving forward firmly and inexorably when have made your decision. As he said, “be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm”. This need for conviction, for focusing on a goal and working consistently towards it, being pragmatic and flexible when you have to be but ultimately achieving your objective is something that we can learn from Lincoln as strategists.

Lincoln’s vision, his approach and his conviction helped win a war and shape a nation. Our ambitions and achievements are of a more modest variety, but as strategists we can learn and apply the lessons of Lincoln to our everyday work, to make us better at what we do, and how we do it.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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