5 Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln

When I discovered a new movie on the life of Lincoln was in the works, I was curious to learn more about Lincoln’s administration and his political career. The fhit movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a masterful telling of Lincoln’s story that follows the lives of each of his cabinet members.

Here are a few leadership lessons from the life of Lincoln as described in the book.

Lesson #1: Know When to Act and When to Wait.

Lincoln knew when to speak and when to remain silent. He knew when to act and when to wait.

In reading the book, I found myself on occasion wanting Lincoln to hurry up and make a decision, only to later discover that making his views public too soon would have sabotaged his chances for seeing lasting change. Whether he was hiring or firing, giving speeches or staying silent, he had an uncanny ability to gauge public opinion. He usually waited for the public to catch up with him before making pronouncements.

At the same time, Lincoln wasn’t afraid to lead. When he knew his actions would likely sway more people to his point of view, he got out in front of them and acted. But he only did so when he was sure he wouldn’t lose the people lagging behind. He was keenly aware of what Malcolm Gladwell called “the tipping point.”

Lesson #2: Don’t Take Things Personally.

Lincoln was hard to offend even when offense was warranted. For example, consider the brashness of General McClellan, who once kept Lincoln and secretary of state William Seward waiting in his parlor until he decided he wasn’t up for visitors and went to bed. As the reader, I wanted to climb into the pages and get in McClellan’s face to yell, “This is the president of the United States!”

Likewise, when cabinet member Salmon Chase undermined Lincoln and sought in vain to replace him on the Republican ticket in 1864, Lincoln shrugged off Chase’s ambitions, saying, “He has the White House fever.” Not only did he choose not to begrudge Chase’s antics, Lincoln later recommended him for the Supreme Court as Chief Justice.

And who can forget William Seward’s arrogant snubbing of his future boss? Seward received more than forgiveness; he received a lifelong friendship.

Though others were astonished at Lincoln’s forgiving spirit, Lincoln knew his responsibilities were too important to let personal squabbles keep him from the task at hand. By not seeking to establish his honor, Lincoln became all the more honorable.

Lesson #3: Be Strategic in Your Diversions.

Some cabinet members muttered about Lincoln’s frequent attendance at the theatre. The times were too serious for such trivial pursuits, they thought.

But Lincoln chose to be refreshed precisely because the times were serious. Compare pictures of Lincoln during the first year of his presidency compared to the last. It’s obvious the horror of war and the personal loss of a child weighed heavily on him.

To maintain his vibrant spirit, Lincoln planned a daily carriage ride every afternoon with his wife – a few precious moments to unwind and hear of other things. He frequented the theatre, where he would lose himself in the humorous plays and musicals of the day. It was because Lincoln took his job so seriously that he looked for ways to relieve the pressure of his office.

Lesson #4: Tell a Story and Paint a Picture.

Lincoln’s oratorical skills are legendary, but not everyone in his day was impressed. Many thought he was a hick, a country “railsplitter” from Illinois who wouldn’t amount to much as president.

But Lincoln knew the power of a story. That’s why his speeches are full of analogies, pictures, and anecdotes. Being a “commoner” was a badge of honor that helped him communicate to the men who gave their lives on the battlefield, the families who buried their young, and the slaves who desired their freedom.

Lincoln had plenty of practice in story-telling. His humor is well-documented by his contemporaries. He kept his kids up at night with tales of adventure. Though pictures often show him looking dour and depressed, the real Lincoln was a jovial man who knew the power of a story.

Lesson #5: Do the Right Thing Even When It is Costly.

There are times when Lincoln was under enormous pressure to fire members of his cabinet, to make changes in personnel, or to hold back on issues related to emancipation. Lincoln could have succumbed easily to outside pressure. Quick decisions might have given him immediate popularity.

But Lincoln understood the fickle nature of politics and refused to bow to the heat of the moment. He decided to do the right thing and accept the fallout. He took responsibility for his administration’s mistakes even when his subordinates were at fault. At personal cost to himself, Lincoln chose the high road, sometimes paying for it in initial political strategy, only to find respect from his countrymen increasing over time.


Lincoln was a great president because he was a great man. Team of Rivals shines light on the wisdom of his strategies and decisions.

Read more from Trevin here.


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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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