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Lessons in Leadership: How Lincoln Became America's Greatest President

It wasn't Abraham Lincoln's strengths but the self-discipline with which he used those strengths for the right purpose.
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There is much we can learn by studying Abraham Lincoln's journey from being just another politician to becoming America's greatest president.  (Wikipedia provides a compilation of "Historical rankings of Presidents of the United States" which makes it clear that in the eyes of many experts, and the public, Lincoln has consistently held this status).  A key to this transformation was how Lincoln, whose birthday is today, developed the self-discipline to take one of his signature strengths—his mastery of language—and used it to serve the interests of the American people rather than his own.    

One of the best communicators of all time

Lincoln was undoubtedly one of the greatest communicators among all American presidents.  His words—as a public speaker, writer, debater, humorist, and conversationalist—continue to entertain, educate, and inspire us to this day.  With only one year of formal schooling, Lincoln consciously cultivated this mastery of language and expression.  As a young boy he would practice public speaking by gathering his friends together and stepping onto a stump to address them.  During his days as a lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln would frequently meet up in the evening with friends at a tavern where they would engage in story-telling contests.  And he gleaned valuable lessons in rhetoric by diligently studying Shakespeare. 

As he began forging his political ambitions, Lincoln recognized the power of words to weaken and even destroy his opponents, and so he started to attack them with powerful volleys of criticism and mockery.  Upon provocation at a political gathering in 1840, Lincoln mimicked and ridiculed his opponent, Jess Thomas, to uproarious cheering of the crowd.  Thomas, who was present at the event, was reduced to tears, and for years afterwards, the people referred to it as "the skinning of Thomas." 

Lincoln was also in the habit of writing anonymous letters to newspapers to sharply criticize his adversaries.  On one occasion in 1842, for instance, he used the fictitious identity of "Rebecca" to castigate and deride the state auditor, James Shields, calling him "a fool and a liar" in a letter, and making mock-allegations of an unflattering conversation that James had had with Rebecca. 

How Lincoln began to use words for a higher purpose

But the Lincoln we know as president was not this brash, impulsive politician who launched personal attacks on his opponents.  What made him change?  All along, something had been stirring within him.  Right after the "skinning of Thomas" in 1840, one of his friends reported that "…the recollection of his own conduct that evening filled [Lincoln] with the deepest chagrin.  He felt he had gone too far and to rid his good nature of a load, hunted up Thomas and made ample apology," according to an excerpt in Benjamin Thomas, Lincoln's Humor:  An Analysis.  

This inner stirring intensified when some of his verbal attacks drew unfavorable consequences for Lincoln himself.  In fact, when the letter he signed as "Rebecca" was published, the recipient of his reproach, Shields, was so enraged that he forced the newspaper to divulge the writer's identity, and, when he was told that it was Lincoln, accosted Lincoln and challenged him to a duel.  Good sense prevailed on both men just moments before they were to commence this fight-unto-death.  Having learned a lesson by coming so close to an inglorious death, Lincoln never wrote such anonymous letters again. 

Gradually molding his character this way, Lincoln also became highly attuned to the feelings of others, including his enemies, and highly measured in the way he communicated in adversarial situations.  This was a crucial quality for leading America at a time when the nation was so divided, and the wounds of a Civil War had to be rapidly healed. Once, as he and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln were approaching Washington in a carriage, she remarked, "This city is full of enemies," Lincoln injected, "Enemies? Never again must we repeat that word," as told in Lincoln As I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies

On an earlier occasion Lincoln had explained about Southerners: "They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up," as recorded in Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  And, in a stirring testimony to his power over words, the President pleaded, in his first inaugural address, "We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." 

Lincoln had not lost his propensity for ridicule, but now it was mostly directed at his own self, in a self-effacing manner.  When, during one of their debates, Stephen Douglas called Lincoln two-faced, Lincoln responded, wryly, "I leave it to my audience.  If I had another face, why would I be wearing this one?"  (This is from Presidential Anecdotes.)

How Lincoln masterfully handled criticism

Lincoln by now was also showing remarkable self-mastery in gracefully fending off the frequent attacks hurled on him by critics, even those within his inner circle.  On one occasion, he was informed that the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had refused to execute a presidential order—and further, had called the president a "damn fool."  "He called me a damn fool?" Lincoln asked.  "Yes!  Not once, sir, but twice!" replied the excited congressman, who had brought him this news.  "Well, Stanton speaks what is on his mind, and he is usually right about what he speaks, so if he called me a damn fool, I must be a damn fool.  I will go to him now and find out why," according to a 2005 Time magazine article The Master of the Game.

But changing oneself isn't easy, so even as president, Lincoln's anger occasionally consumed him, making him pour it out in letters to critics, errant generals, and others.  He had the self-discipline though to not dispatch these "hot" letters; they were later discovered, unsigned, in a drawer in the president's desk.  In this way, one small step at a time, Lincoln built his self-discipline, and through it, the character of his presidency. 

Lincoln's journey suggests that the true measure of a leader lies not in how much we cultivate and exploit our strengths, but in how we work on tapping, in Lincoln's words, the "better angels of our nature" to use our strengths in the service of a cause much higher than our own personal gain.

Do you have the discipline to sculpt your character?

Do you view yourself solely as who you are today—some good, some bad—or do you see the potential for gradually sculpting your character further, the way Lincoln did?

How aware are you of your strengths?  What have you been doing to nurture them?  Are there times when you have misused these strengths? Has this led to any inner stirring in you, and have you been striving to discipline yourself to use your strengths in more and more purposeful ways?  What kind of life story could you craft for yourself if you chose to do that?

In the comments section below, I invite you to share reflections from your own journey in life and leadership.  Some executives and MBA students in my Personal Leadership & Success classes and workshops have shared remarkable stories of their own personal transformation and growth—in wisdom, character, and life direction.  If you have experienced a similar turning point, do describe it below, for your story may inspire us just as much as Lincoln's.

Last updated: Feb 12, 2012

HITENDRA WADHWA | Columnist | Columbia Business School

Hitendra Wadhwa is a professor at Columbia Business School, where he teaches a popular class on personal leadership, and founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership. He has also worked at McKinsey & Company, and founded Paramark, an online marketing firm.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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