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Lessons from Honest Abe – Putting Presidential Leadership to Work in Your Business


Americans love Abraham Lincoln. There are countless books and movies dedicated to our 16th President. From vampire slayer to political mastermind, we have woven an intricate, larger than life mystique around one man. After a highly charged election with implications reaching far into the future, it seems we enjoy taking a look back, too.

Politics aside, Lincoln is widely celebrated for overcoming his meager beginnings, his strange and quirky ways, and for his unconventional leadership methods. His leadership style confused just about everyone then but has become the basis for popular business and leadership books now. What can we, as business leaders and owners, gain from one of our history’s best leadership teachers?

Humility & Persistence. One of Lincoln’s apparent quirky traits was the ability to identify his own shortcomings, and often poke fun at them. Defeats were a learning experience, and despite plenty of them, he continued on. To do this effectively, you must have a well-developed sense of humility. Lincoln appointed rivals to his cabinet and former foes to important government offices. He understood with a country already divided, feeding into more division among the remaining states of the Union would not serve his purposes. Lincoln didn’t take the easy road, and what he accomplished seemed impossible at the time.

Planning, planning, planning. Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” According to Von Drehle, Lincoln made two major decisions in 1862 – to replace General McClellan as the Commander of Union troops, and to emancipate the slaves. He did not act on these decisions for quite some time, to the frustration of his closest aides. He knew, however, his ability to successfully execute both of these depended on gaining enough support and waiting for the right moment. He knew what he wanted to do, but he also had the foresight to consider the environment necessary for success.

Honest Abe. Although he is recognized for his political prowess, Lincoln is better known for his honesty. He earned his nickname, Honest Abe, when he was a young clerk in a store. He discovered he shortchanged a customer and walked a long distance to return the difference. He reportedly had a widespread reputation for his honesty as a trial attorney in Springfield, Illinois. During the civil war, he was quoted as saying, "I hain't been caught lying yet, and I don't mean to be." Countless reports by political leaders and diplomats will present a laundry list of his weaknesses, but the common thread is a respect for his honesty and integrity. How many other political leaders, or leaders of industry, can we say this about?

The best lesson we can take from Lincoln may be the importance of being honorable in our business practices. If we rely on our persistence and planning, do all things with integrity, and remember to keep a healthy dose of humility, maybe we can be like Honest Abe too.

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