The 3 Leadership Qualities of Abraham Lincoln

January 1, 2017

Abraham Lincoln is more than America's 16th president. He's a model of leadership who demonstrates traits and characteristics that are essential for present day executives and business leaders.

Like Lincoln, you face the challenge of executing a vision, while also managing competing priorities. Leading others to join you in that vision is a difficult task, and one that can be fraught with self-doubt, frustration and other negative emotions.

Before and after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln confronted a variety of trials and obstacles, but remained committed to his vision to create a free nation. While Lincoln embodies many admirable qualities, three are especially relevant: 

Lincoln was a master listener.

Like most leaders, Lincoln dealt with conflicting views and personalities, yet he's known as a man who listened. People were free to oppose his point of view without fear of retaliation. Of course, listening wasn't always an indication of Lincoln's agreement. He would simply listen to competing ideas, process what he'd heard, and then respectfully make his final decision. Executives can model their behavior similarly, fostering open dialogue by allowing others to offer ideas and suggestions. Here's how:

  • Listen for the meta- and the micro-message. In communication, there is often a message beyond the message. For example, "How are you?" is a common question to which most respond, "I'm fine." Yet, there is usually more to it, so leaders must listen not only to the words, but also the tone, pitch and overall delivery of the words to get the true message.
  • Create a space for open dialogue. Inviting others to express their ideas and opinions, even if they may differ from yours, fosters better listening. Do this by asking open-ended questions, "Do you have something specific in mind?" or "Tell me more about your thoughts on this." This gives you a broader perspective and helps others feel heard and acknowledged.

Lincoln was a master communicator.

Lincoln was a communicator who artfully wove his vision for a free America with the priorities of his countrymen. This is no small feat, and one executives wrestle with daily. Often, it's difficult to make executive decisions that are best for long-term success when they conflict with short-term interests. Lincoln was a speaker of the people. In other words, he simplified his vision and presented it in a way that conveyed his understanding of the people and supported his larger purpose. Effective communication, like Lincoln's, is marked by:  

  • Language that invites participation. The three most powerful words a leader can speak are: "you," "we" and "us." These words connect, bringing others into the fold and involving them in your message.
  • Passion for your subject. When you speak, are you listless, disengaged or even boring? If you lack passion and enthusiasm for your message, your audience will notice. Dig deep and get passionately behind the message you want to convey so others can sense and adopt that energy. 

Lincoln was a master of his emotions.

Lincoln endured his share of mental suffering during his presidency. The pressure of leadership can evoke fear and self-doubt in the most successful leaders. Certainly, leadership is not for the weak of heart. It takes resilience and composure to manage the range of negative emotions that can arise when facing challenges. Lincoln demonstrates how leaders can navigate tough emotions without compromising their larger purpose or vision. Regardless of circumstances, he had:

  • A clear vision of what he wanted to create. Lincoln knew with absolute clarity how he wanted to see the United States change. His vision was always clear and he was passionate about bringing it to fruition. That clarity enabled him to see beyond difficult circumstances and press on.
  • An unwavering belief. Having a vision is one thing, but believing that it's possible and will happen is what separates a successful leader from others. Do you believe in the vision you've created for your organization?
Image credit: Flickr/pochacco20

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