Two Lincoln Lessons this Presidents Day

From the impeachment trial in Washington to the scandal in New York State, we continue to struggle to find solid examples of upstanding, intentional leadership. These are desperate days. We need leaders marked by thoughtful integrity, thorough goodness, and hearts deliberately set on genuinely serving others.

With so much bad news lately, I have forced myself to reflect, to search and ponder some potential good news this Presidents Day. I find myself aiming to recall more positive lessons from past leaders.

Let’s revisit two lessons from Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, insights that emerge even amidst desperately negative circumstances.

Lincoln leveraged solid self-awareness of his own dark side.

His contemporaries—those people around him during early political days as well as those surrounding his presidency—all knew his capacity to convey a glum, weighted down demeanor. He would often retreat on his own with a furrowed brow in order to puzzle over problems or brood on dilemmas. He was known for projecting heaviness and a somber tone, so much that some historians have labeled Lincoln’s malaise as depression. However, Doris Kearns Goodwin has aptly deduced his outlook as melancholy instead.[1]

And here’s what’s remarkable: Lincoln knew this dismal personal penchant. He also knew how to leverage his melancholy for the greater good. Lincoln did two things in light of such self-awareness. First, he told stories, often humorous, witty ones. In such story crafting, he was typically successful at lifting his own spirit as well as the tone and overall outlook of those whom he was leading.

Second, he allowed his melancholy outlook to fuel deeper empathy. Historians recognize that much of Lincoln’s political success came via his uncanny ability to identify with the hurts and needs of his constituents. Having deeply pondered and felt their pain, he could then plan and plot a stronger platform of service.

Lincoln was also skillful at leveraging his melancholy in order to anticipate his political opponent’s next move. Sometimes he would do this well in advance of the other party’s action and the resulting public news. Such self-awareness and skillful ability to leverage his melancholy mood for the greater good proved marvelously helpful. Lincoln actually strengthened his leadership influence with intentional use of his known tendency.

Lincoln built his cabinet largely from a list of rivals.

So many present-day leaders are prone to assembling their teams and boards only from individuals with whom they fully agree. Leaders tend to gather those who are readily “yes people,” others who are not likely to give them push-back or express alternate views. It’s remarkable to realize, President-elect Lincoln very intentionally assembled his team out of those who had already expressed differences of opinion, run against him, and even some who had openly expressed opposition to his key platforms and agenda. Lincoln saw such diversity as essential, healthy, and empowering toward genuine progress and productive outcomes during those difficult days.

I am deeply grateful for these two Lincoln insights. I long to see them employed by more of our current leaders in Washington as well as influencers in vital business arenas. And I am also stirred and equally eager to utilize them myself in my own realms of church and community leadership in the days ahead.

Let’s learn from Lincoln! Happy Presidents Day!  


[1]Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, 2005.