Posted 10 years ago
The Leadership Genius of Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln really was born in a log cabin. The fact that he went on to become President — and to lead the country through the most difficult period of its history — is truly remarkable. It’s even more amazing when you consider what it took to be an important leader in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although we hear a lot about people like Lincoln or Andrew Jackson or Ulysses S. Grant — people who came from nothing to wield great power — these were most definitely the exceptions who proved the rule. And the rule was, most successful people started out with all the advantages. Financially, it was much harder to get rich a hundred and fifty years ago than it is today — and if you failed, it was much harder to get back on your feet. There was no safety net from the government or from anywhere else to make sure that you didn’t go hungry. In those days, it was every man for himself. With that in mind, let’s look for a minute at some of the things that Lincoln faced and overcame. You’ve probably seen lists similar to this, describing Lincoln’s failures, but I’d like to go through it again in order to make some important points, which we’ll take up immediately after the list. As you’re listening to this list, I’d like you also to think of setbacks you’ve faced in your own life, and how you responded to them. In 1832, Lincoln was working in a general store in Illinois when he decided to run for the state legislature. But the election was some months away, and before it took place the general store went bankrupt and Lincoln was out of a job. So he joined the army and served three months. When he got out, it was almost time for the election — which he lost. Then, with a partner, Lincoln opened a new general store. His partner embezzled from the business, and the store went broke. And shortly thereafter the partner died, leaving Lincoln with debts that took several years to pay off. In 1834, Lincoln ran again for the state legislature, and this time he won. He was even elected to three more terms of two years each. During this period, however, Lincoln also suffered some severe emotional problems. Today he would have been categorized as clinically depressed. By 1836, Lincoln had become a licensed attorney. At that time, a law degree was not required to pass the bar exam, and Lincoln had been studying on his own for years. He later became a circuit-riding lawyer, traveling from county to county in Illinois to plead cases in different jurisdictions. He was one of the most diligent of all the lawyers doing this kind of work, and between 1849 and 1860 he missed only two court sessions on the circuit. In 1838, he was defeated in an attempt to become Speaker of the Illinois legislature, and in 1843 he was defeated in an attempt to win nomination for Congress. In 1846 he was elected to Congress, but in 1848 he had to leave because his party had a policy of limiting terms. In 1854, he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate. In 1856, he lost the nomination for Vice President, and in 1858 he was again defeated in a race for the Senate. Yet in spite of all these setbacks, in 1860 he was elected President of the United States. What can we learn about leadership from looking at this chronology? To me, the most remarkable thing is how every time Lincoln failed at something, he was soon trying for something even bigger. When he loses his seat in the state legislature, he runs for the national congress. When he loses a bid for the Senate, he tries to become vice president — and when he loses the Senate race again, he winds up President of the whole country. Lincoln saw himself as a leader long before anyone else did — and this is the first key to his leadership genius. He may have failed many times, but somehow he always failed upward. He was propelled by a sense of mission, and he was willing and able to do whatever it took to get that great mission accomplished. From the very first, Lincoln saw himself as the savior of the country. Not just as a successful lawyer or a judge or the owner of a general store. To him, all those things were way stations on the way to something much bigger and more important. Lincoln saw himself as a leader long before he was one. In fact, he saw himself as the leader, right from the first. This wasn’t arrogance or empty ambition. It was a sense of ultimate purpose in service of a worthy cause. How can you bring that sense of mission into your own life? What are your big, worthy dreams? Are there are goals that you recognized from the first, which you’ve continued to pursue no matter what setbacks have intervened? If that’s the case, then you’re already a leadership genius — you’ve already mastered the art of leading your life in the direction you want it to go. On the other hand, you may be one of the many people who have put aside any ideas about changing the country or the world. That’s fine — but I do want to repeat the question I asked a moment ago: What are your big, worthy dreams? And I want to emphasize worthy. Having a big car or a boat doesn’t count. Those things are great, but can you see the difference between wanting material success and wanting to make a truly big difference in the world, the way Lincoln did? It’s the difference between just being successful for your own sake, in very conventional terms — and being a leadership genius, not just for yourself, but for other people too. In Lincoln’s case, it was for all people. Think about your life in terms of a mission – a great purpose that inspires you to leadership — first leadership of yourself, and then of others. If you’ve identified that purpose, the next step is thinking practically and realistically about how you’re going to bring it about. And sometimes the practical side has to be dealt with first, in order to make the larger purpose feasible. Is there anything about yourself that you suspect might disqualify you from being an effective leader? What are they? How can you turn these perceived weaknesses into your strengths? It’s tempting to think that our leaders should be without weaknesses, but that’s by no means the truth. Leaders should not be without weaknesses that they’re unaware of. Leaders should not be out of touch with what’s going on in their minds and hearts. That awareness in itself is much more important than what challenges it reveals. These are questions that will take more than a few minutes to answer — but I urge you to reflect on them to improve your leadership genius.