Lincoln is remembered as a great leader — so what can today's business leaders learn from him?

Credit: National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons

Learning from Lincoln

March 1, 2013

Did Abraham Lincoln craft an innovative leadership style? Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn thinks today's business leaders should take notes from the wartime president.

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In the last presidential race, former Gov. Mitt Romney tried selling himself to voters as "CEO-in-chief" — as a business leader ready to lead the nation to a better future.

As we know, the pitch ultimately fell short. But if we reversed the situation, could business leaders learn something from our presidents?

Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn thinks business leaders could learn a lot from one president in particular. And after Daniel Day Lewis took home an Academy Award for his thoughtful portrayal of America’s 16th president, there’s never been a better time to ask ourselves — what can we learn from Lincoln?

President Lincoln with Major General John A. McClernand and Allan Pinkerton, detective.
Photo Credit: National Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Step out of the Corner Office

If you’re hoping to follow in the steps of Lincoln, you can start by throwing any yes-men out of the room. Koehn says that Lincoln purposely surrounded himself with people whose views conflicted with and challenged his own so that any decision he made was well structured and balanced. Next, step out of your corner office and talk to the employees in cubicles outside. Lincoln held office hours throughout his presidency so that he was always in touch with the public opinion. 

“People could line up and they did, all the way down the steps of the White House, all the way up the staircase, and all the way out to Pennsylvania Avenue — and you could go see the president,” she says. “The higher up you go in a chain of command or a spear of authority, the more important it is that you get a sense of the diversity of stakeholders and what is at stake for them”

There are a lot of CEOs and leaders who have done this well, but Koehn cites Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, as one of the best. He believes in making Starbucks a fair company, from building environmentally friendly stores to extending benefits to all employees. Schultz talks to employees at every level of Starbucks, from delivery truck drivers, to managers, to baristas. That sort of interaction doesn’t come effortlessly, Koehn says. It’s a conscious management choice.

“It’s something he thinks about,” she explains. “You have to say — yes, there are a lot of great things about a G5, but this isn’t the real world. And I need to keep a foot in the world that my fellow citizens, my fellow employees, my fellow stakeholders live in.”

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln laid out a clear plan for the future without underestimating American citizens.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Don't Forget the Big Picture

What else must leaders do to think like Lincoln? Koehn says they need to see themselves as agents at a moment in history — and realize that each decision they make affects something larger than next quarter’s earnings. Koehn argues that both 1862 and 1864 were years in which America as we know it could have ended. But despite the enormous pressure on his shoulders, Lincoln never put short-term benefits over long-term stability.

Instead he delivered speeches like the “Gettysburg Address,” which tied his hopes for America’s future to the country’s history, while clearly stating what might be lost in achieving his goals. Lincoln trusted that Americans would understand that a government for the people, of the people, and by the people, would not perish. Koehn believes that more of today’s leaders should trust people to follow a complex, cohesive mission.

“It’s this very interesting issue of eyesight —what do leaders see?” Koehn says. “How do they understand their company, their group, their own work and sense of satisfaction on a larger stage? And then, if you understand all that, which is hard stuff, what are you willing to wager on credible idealism?”

Given her years of studying Lincoln’s particular brand of credible idealism — the one that helped him persevere through a Civil War, constant death threats, and a personal struggle with depression, you might think that Koehn would find fault with the Hollywood version of Lincoln. Koehn herself thought she wouldn’t like Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln,” which brought home two Academy Awards. But she was surprised.

“I went prepared to be angry and cranky about all the historical accuracies that were bastardized in the film, in Tony Kushner’s screenplay, and I came away amazed by its veracity, and by its portrait of Lincoln as not only this calculating, brilliant, deft politician and large strategic thinker — he was certainly all those things — but also the portrait it offers of Lincoln as a human being.” 

WATCH: Official "Lincoln" Trailer

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