This week began with Presidents Day, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the leadership qualities of two of our greatest Presidents--Washington and Lincoln--and what we as business leaders can learn from them.
A strong team is key to success, and Washington and Lincoln both showed the importance of surrounding themselves with people who weren't afraid of telling them the truth.
Lincoln appointed some of his most bitter rivals to his cabinet--people with strong egos who weren't afraid to challenge his decisions and authority. Yet he created an atmosphere of inclusiveness where all members of his team felt valued for their opinions. Everyone remained focused on Lincoln's overall mission: That of holding the union together and ending the Civil War.
"Lincoln took responsibility for what he did, and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others, and so people became very loyal to him," wrote Diane Coutu in an essay on Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln, published in Harvard Business Review.
Still, Lincoln didn't let dissent stop him from making up his own mind. He made the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation entirely on his own, for example.
And what about Washington? If he hadn't been in charge of the Continental Army, it's doubtful we'd have won the Revolutionary War. Washington may be the most successful general in history in the art of retreat; despite losing more battles than he won, he drove the British crazy with masterful tactics that let him counterattack at pivotal moments, culminating in the Battle of Yorktown that led to the British surrender in 1781.
Washington didn't merely surround himself with talented advisors willing to express themselves candidly. He also led by personal example, working alongside his men, engaging in the same activities he required of them--thus becoming a great role model.
Their examples can help you succeed in business in two important ways.
First, avoid creating a "yes-man" atmosphere--both within your inner circle of leaders and even among your employees.
When you hire, look for true energy and talent rather than sheep-like compliance to your way of thinking. Don't worry that people might not mesh well with you or with their supervisors. Encourage people to be forthcoming with ideas and suggestions.
In our firm, for example, we don't want people to be silent about problems they encounter or observe. We encourage them to tell us about problems, and we love it even more when they offer solutions. In fact, it is these kinds of proactive contributions that we look for when considering current staff for promotions.
Second, instead of being aloof and rarely leaving your office, work alongside your employees whenever you can. Work with them on projects, or at least stop by to see how the work is going.
Employees will emulate you. If your attitude is cynical or secretive, theirs will be too. But if you set an enthusiastic tone of cooperation, you'll all be working together and accomplishing great things.
Washington and Lincoln led this nation through difficult wars--far greater challenges than you'll ever face in business. But imitating their wise leadership examples can help you win a different kind of war.
It's called competition.