Learning from Lincoln’s Life, Part II

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In the course of their lives, most people change slowly, and often, hardly at all. Intentionally changing oneself is particularly difficult. Read a biography about one of your favorite leaders and you will notice personality traits and tendencies that manifest themselves at an early age and continue on throughout the individual’s entire life. This stubborn persistence of personality can be frightening to someone who wants to develop leadership skills but feels that their various personality traits prevents them from doing so.

What if the following list were to describe you?:

  • High level of passivity in personal and professional life
  • Spends excessive amounts of time thinking through problems before making a decision
  • Tends to make big decisions without consulting others
  • Slow to make organizational changes and hesitant to fire underperforming personnel
  • Suffers from crippling depression
  • Reactive instead of proactive
  • Extremely disorganized
  • Indirect communication style


Throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln consistently displayed all of these characteristics. Most of these are not the types of characteristics that we would tend to associate with good leadership, and yet, Lincoln’s legacy speaks for itself. Lincoln embraced his personality and it strongly influenced his methods of leadership. By focusing intensely on and developing his greatest strengths—carefully using reason to make decisions and engineering a broad consensus—he was able to compensate for the aspects of his personality that undermined his ability to lead.

In fact, his temperament and personality enabled him to complete the delicate task of emancipating the slaves and reuniting the United States.

The following is an exchange from the movie Lincoln (2012). In it, Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, are arguing about how to go about rebuild of the South and implement the abolition of slavery. The exchange exemplifies Lincoln’s reserved and pragmatic leadership style, which enabled him to move vastly different groups of people towards his vision for the country.



Thaddeus Stevens: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote, and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We’ll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors. We’ll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free children. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.

Abraham Lincoln: That’s the untempered version of reconstruction. It’s not… It’s not exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we’re working together, and I’m asking you—

Thaddeus Stevens: For patience, I expect.

Abraham Lincoln: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they’re ready to make up—

Thaddeus Stevens: I don’t give a damn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of ’em. And I look a lot worse without the wig. The people elected me to represent them, to lead them, and I lead! You ought to try it.

Abraham Lincoln: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens. And I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I’d listened to you, I’d have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.

Thaddeus Stevens: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them—but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.

Abraham Lincoln: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll point you True North from where you are standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?


There is not one “right” way to lead. And there is not just one type of personality that is ideal for leadership. It doesn’t matter whether you have a personality more like Abraham Lincoln or more like Thaddeus Stevens.  There are strengths and weaknesses associated with both. What matters is that you know who you are. Then, take your self-knowledge and develop a leadership style that works in harmony with it.

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