How Abraham Lincoln Can Help You Build A Better Team

Modern Marketing


They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How many wheels can your team afford to reinvent?

As a student of history, I see the present as just another iteration in the core human struggle to make things better. Whether it’s with a spear-thrower or an iPhone, we’ve been working on improving things for a very long time. And as exciting as things like unlimited time off, open floorplans, and a kitchen stocked with healthy snacks are, concepts don’t need to be new for the sake of being new. Sometimes, it’s okay to stand on the shoulders of giants, especially when it comes to dealing with people. Gems of wisdom that have survived the test of several centuries are certainly okay in my book, so join me in a rapid-fire history lesson on how Abraham Lincoln can help us build better teams.

Crash Course in History

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln stunned the nation when he was elected the 16th President of the United States. As a self-made backwoods lawyer, Lincoln was a relatively unknown figure. Yet through a cunning strategy, he played his top three rivals (all better known than him) against each other and won the presidency. And what’s most interesting about this story is that he chose these rivals to serve with him in his Cabinet.

Lincoln appointed his top rival, William Seward, to Secretary of State. Seward tried to gain control of Lincoln’s cabinet, and after Lincoln outmaneuvered him, Seward ultimately came to recognize Lincoln’s superior leadership and respect him. They became close friends, and Seward set a new bar for effectiveness in the Department of State. Lincoln’s other rival, Edward Bates, was appointed to Attorney General and was crucial in enacting Lincoln’s early war policies. And Lincoln’s third rival, Salmon Chase, despite devising political schemes to supplant Lincoln upon re-election, displayed such financial mastery as the Treasury Secretary that Lincoln overlooked his political meddling.

Notable historian Doris Goodwin credits the Cabinet’s diversity, resilience, and tenacity with holding the North together and eventually reuniting the nation. Essentially, if Lincoln hadn’t overlooked his rivalries and surrounded himself with the most effective players, we would possibly live in a much smaller country.

Lincoln’s Principles in Present-Day

As you can see from that brief history primer, Lincoln was a master strategist who was excellent at putting aside personal grievances to arrive at the right decision. The best decision. He knew that if he hired like-minded and compliant people, they wouldn’t offer anything extra and he’d have to spend all of his time micromanaging them. With a nation on the brink of war, Lincoln had no time or desire for this, so he surrounded himself with a mix of strong-minded individuals who required no supervision. In effect, he created an elite force second to none, which came in handy when the Civil War erupted right as he took office.

While forming an elite force like Lincoln’s may seem like a daunting task, keep in mind that anything that helps you grow will feel uncomfortable at first. Managers and teams who make “comfortable” decisions and don’t add challenging people into the mix remain stagnant. If you plan on achieving stellar results, you need to start by hiring the best available people, even if they may disagree with you. So take a page from the history book and apply these seven principles to build a winning team:

1. Choose the highest achiever, not the one that looks best on paper

Hire people who are star performers, not just ones with relevant experience. You want to hire people who have a zealous passion for life and a willingness to learn. Often, people need to take on more responsibilities than what’s specifically outlined in their job description. Star performers are eager to take on more and usually do it well. In fact, Lincoln and his rivals were all lawyers and legislators and none had prosecuted a war before, but they did so and won anyways. Lincoln himself borrowed a stack of library books on war tactics and worked hard to become a formidable tactician to support his generals in the field.

2. Don’t be afraid of strong-willed employees

Passion isn’t something you can train. When you find it in employees, harness it. Strong-willed employees will help you achieve higher results, so find ways to let them take the lead on projects they’re most passionate about. And in matters where they are the expert, consider their opinions. Secretary of State William Seward adamantly disagreed with Lincoln over the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, and he insisted on changes that eventually led to the powerful document we know today.

3. Get in the trenches with your team

The best leaders lead by example, and Lincoln was no exception. When his generals were too busy quarreling with each other to fight the South, he headed to the front lines and set up a tent, met with the troops, raised morale, and compelled his generals to act. When Washington came under siege, he insisted on standing at the ramparts and narrowly escaped sniper fire. Your job, as a leader, is to be out there facing the same risks as your team to set an example. Be their advocate to upper management and work the same long hours that they do. If you show that you’re all fighting the same fight and win their allegiance, they’ll support you in return. As a matter of fact, the votes from Lincoln’s soldiers were the deciding factor in his re-election.

4. Trust your team to do their job

Delegation is difficult, but you have to do it. Remember that you hired smart people so that you wouldn’t have to tell them what to do—trust your team to do their jobs. Focus on defining the end-goal for them and let them figure out the best way to get there. Lincoln hired each of his opponents and allowed each of them to be king of their own castle. His trust paid off in the form of a fully-balanced wartime budget, a cohesive government, and plenty of legal standing upon which to prosecute the war.

5. Latch on to the people who challenge you

In your organization, you may have strong-willed people who aren’t afraid to disagree with you. These are precisely the sort of allies you want. Short-term rivals are potentially your greatest future supporters, so set your ego aside and bring them closer, rather than push them away. If their hearts are in the right place, you can win them over by demonstrating that your interests are aligned and that they can be part of the solution.

One of the largest factors that contributed to Lincoln’s war success was the unmitigated genius of his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Years earlier, Stanton had publicly humiliated Lincoln, who was then just a little known “prairie-lawyer.” As President, Lincoln turned around and extended Stanton a position in his Cabinet, where he was so effective that it came to define his career.

6. Don’t be afraid to be wrong

Your title may have “manager” in it, but your ability to govern is derived from your leadership. If you try to govern A-players by fiat, you will fail. Why? Because sometimes you will be wrong (as all humans are), and if your ego is riding on always being right, you’re going to end up defending some bad ideas and lose your team’s trust. If your goal truly is to arrive at the best decision for the company, you need to back the best ideas, whoever they belong to.

Lincoln was infamous for publicly admitting his mistakes and more; he also proactively took the blame for his subordinates’ actions, often to their surprise. This built trust, diffused criticism, and led to excellent decisions. So start things off on the right foot and let your team know that you are fallible and welcome their ideas and feedback.

7. Hire people with heart

Check your A-players for whether they truly believe in the mission of your company before determining that they’re a fit. This is the core secret to the success of Lincoln’s administration: he was able to rely on his Cabinet’s stellar performance because he knew that their hearts were in the right place. As patriots, they all valued the success of the nation above their own personal interests and when push came to shove, they accepted Cabinet positions under Lincoln because they believed in the values that America stood for.

As one of the greatest leaders that this nation has ever had, we have a lot to learn from Lincoln. We can take a lot from his book: select the best people, empower them, and get out of their way. It was how Lincoln successfully managed and won the Civil War against all odds, and it’s how you can build spectacular teams.

Will you be following in Lincoln’s footsteps? Were there any other lessons Lincoln has taught us about building great teams? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.