A Team of Rivals

It’s not often I buy a book at Shoppers Drug Mart (I think I really mean never), but the title of this book caught my eye, the topic (a bio of Abraham Lincoln) was already on my list of ‘someday’ reading, and at 916 pages I was sure the author had done a thorough job! And now that I’ve finished it, I recommend it highly to anyone in leadership.

A most unlikely team

Doris Goodwin, a Pulitzer prize winner, wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln to show how Lincoln assembled a team of long time rivals to make the Cabinet that would get the country through the Civil War. Not only were the teammates rivals of each other, but they were also all Lincoln’s rivals too! I’ve since read that Barak Obama loves this book and it is clear in his choice of cabinet members that he is following Lincoln’s strategy pretty closely.

I’m not sure if Lincoln’s team-building strategy is necessarily the best one to use because there is debate about its success.  However, what every leader should consider emulating is Lincoln’s gracious approach to dealing with people, a leadership style that helped him recruit whoever was best able to help him accomplish his goals. I’ll give some examples below.

Since Goodwin researched not only Lincoln’s papers but also those of his rivals, she can tell you what Lincoln was thinking, and what the others were thinking at the same time. You will appreciate Lincoln’s leadership wisdom all the more as you see how he overcame the different personal agendas and got his team focused on the good of the nation.

The book is about more than just leadership.  It is a fascinating history of the Civil War. I did not know that some slave-owning states stayed in the Union and fought for the North. I also didn’t know that the war wasn’t about slavery until it was halfway over. And Lincoln’s assassination was just one of three coordinated assassination attempts planned for that night. The Vice President’s assassin chickened out at the last moment, but the Secretary of State was very seriously wounded and nearly died.

Goodwin’s book is also a political thriller as you follow the backroom negotiations that took place as the Republican party was cobbled together from many different parties including the Whigs (Lincoln’s original party) and the incredibly named Know-Nothing Party.

Leadership Lessons from Lincoln

But most of all, A Team of Rivals is a leadership book. Rather than a how-to book, Goodwin tells the story of Lincoln’s life and allows the reader to draw out the leadership lessons. I’d like to share some of the lessons because they are profound, they should inspire you to a higher level of leadership, and I hope to entice you to read the book yourself.

  • Lincoln led by principle and kept his major goal as the only goal. Time and again complex decisions were easily made as he stayed with basic principles. In 1855 he needed 51 votes in the Illinois legislature to become a senator. After 9 ballots, Lincoln had 47 votes and knew that was all he could get. The Democrats wanted to compromise on slavery, so Lincoln gave his 47 votes to a candidate who only had only 5 votes but who shared Lincoln’s slavery position. Lincoln’s generosity gained him a friend who would later be a help to him.
  • Lincoln was so impressed by the skills of a lawyer who humiliated him in a court case that a few years later Lincoln made him Secretary of War. Lincoln knew this man had the ability to do what was needed. Lincoln’s philosophy was “No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.”
  • Lincoln made others feel powerful and valued. Frederick Douglass said, “Perhaps you may like to know how the President of the United States received a black man at the White House. I will tell you how he received me — just as you have seen one gentleman receive another. I tell you I felt big there!”
  • Lincoln never put others down, but always offered a way to save face. While Lincoln was patient, he insisted on performance and moved people out of their positions, but always giving them a way to exit gracefully. He took quick, direct action only to protect the presidential authority when people overstepped and made decisions that were the president’s alone to make.
  • Lincoln did nothing “off the cuff.” He was a masterful strategist who made sure he understood public opinion and the deeper trends that affected society. He knew how far he could push the public at any one time and was willing to take a step at a time and wait for public opinion to catch up. He carefully researched the issues and tested his speeches until he had the most persuasive speech possible. (The story of the Gettysburg Address being written on an envelope on the way to the speech is just that – a story.) Lincoln spoke from the heart with conviction and told compelling stories that people could easily relate to. His goal was always to persuade people to adopt his goals.
  • Lincoln valued healthy debate, so he always picked the best people, whether or not they were his supporters. He made his own decisions, but only after hearing all the views.
  • Lincoln had such a profound sense of self-assurance that he could withstand an endless barrage of criticism. He frequently forgave people, even his own Cabinet members.
  • Finally, Lincoln was acutely aware of his own emotional needs and made sure they were met. He relaxed with people, told jokes, attended the theatre, read poetry and went to the frontlines several times because visiting the troops always revived his spirit. In spite of the crushing burden of the war, Lincoln found ways to keep himself fresh and in good spirits.

One change that would improve the book is to have a ‘cast list’ in an appendix with some high level descriptions of each person. The cast of characters is large enough, and the information about them is detailed enough, that it is hard to keep them all sorted out.

Goodwin’s thesis would have been strengthened if she had dealt with the issues and examples raised by those who do not think Lincoln’s Cabinet was a strong team. The way the book is written, it sounds like an interesting idea (picking rivals for your team) but not a proven idea. Readers will feel they are on solid ground when it comes to Lincoln’s example of interpersonal relations, but that they are on shakier ground when it comes to assembling your own team of rivals. We know the value of having multiple viewpoints at the table, but has this idea of a team of rivals been replicated successfully? Goodwin doesn’t say. Perhaps Obama’s Cabinet will be the test.

Happy reading, and let me know what you think of this book.

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