Monday, June 25, 2012

CEOs: Leadership Lessons from Lincoln

By Virgil Carter
The importance of successful and reasoned leadership at executive levels is probably obvious.  What may not be so obvious is the type of leadership needed for success under varying circumstances.  For example, non-profit organizations may face a wide variety of situations, ranging from a downturn in the economic fortunes of the organization to rapid organizational growth in new markets.  Membership and volunteer participation may be up, down or radically changing.  Competitive organizations and markets may threaten the future of many non-profits.  Internal differences of view may create crippling paralysis within the organization.  These and other challenging situations call for many different types and experiences in leadership.  Where can we look for examples of successful leadership in challenging circumstances such as these? 

One historical source, full of examples of triumph over staggering challenges, is the life and achievements of Abraham Lincoln.  So much has been written about Abraham Lincoln that the useful available sources may appear endless.  An excellent and instructive work, however, is Team of Rivals, by historian, author and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

In her book, Goodwin documents the life of Lincoln, his political rivals for the Republican nomination for President in 1860 and how Lincoln ultimately won the Presidency when no one expected him to do so.  Displaying great vision, courage and self-reliance, Lincoln thereafter appointed his political rivals to his cabinet during the turbulent years of the Civil War.  Each of these rivals must have felt their superiority to the inexperienced President, because “they were the strongest men”.  In the end, however, it was Lincoln who became the strongest of them all, and guided the nation through one of its most troubling and challenging times.

What were some of Lincoln’s leadership strengths that changed history?  Goodwin identifies these, among others:
  • Visionary yet a practical realist
  • Superhuman empathy
  • Decisive & steadfast:  possessed the “long view” w/steadfast vision & unswerving commitment to purpose
  • Ability to strike compromise & control own emotions
  • Never used authority or coercion—motivated by communications & infinite patience
  • Fair--inspired others to overcome petty rivalries
  • Excellent story teller & communicator
  • Honesty & integrity
  • Subordination of himself to his work
  • Sense of proportion & humor
  • Ability to rise above personal slights; ability to get along w/persons of clashing ideologies
  • Refrained from turning competitors into enemies
As a non-profit organization CEO (or aspiring one), what can we learn from Lincoln?  If your organization is diverse and opinion-rich, chances are you have “rivals”, of one kind or another.  Fortunately, few of us will ever face the extreme levels of leadership challenge faced by Lincoln.  Considering Lincoln’s leadership strengths and how they were put into practice, however, may enable all of us to become better leaders, forging important bonds with our own “team of rivals”,  and enabling success regardless of the challenge.  Good luck!

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