Lincoln Leadership Lessons: Actively Lead

June 30, 2012

Today is part four of a five part series exploring Leadership Lessons from Lincoln Applied to Christian Ministry


Perhaps one of the Lincoln’s greatest assets was during the Civil War when Lincoln actively led.

Lincoln Leadership Lessons Applied to Christian Ministry

Early in his presidency he said he never wanted to dabble in the military, but when the Confederates (in the South) decided they wanted to start a war in order to separate themselves from the Union (in the North), Lincoln had to lead the war.[1] He had to allow his military officers to lead but he also monitored them, which is how he was able to know when to fire them and when to promote them. Because Lincoln had to actively lead both in and out of the Civil War he was quoted saying, “As commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.”[2] And that is what Lincoln did during the military. He made trips to visit his troops, he regularly communicated with his military generals, he nervously anticipated war reports as they came in over the telegraph machine, and he fired and promoted generals based on their performance and willingness to carry out his orders. Lincoln’s habit of actively leading helped him know when he had a military general who needed to be fired and when he needed to promote someone else. Because he was actively engaged in the war studying strategy and reviewing reports on a daily basis he was better equipped to lead his nation. He so closely monitored what was going on, he knew what results to expect in the war.

The greatest description of how Lincoln actively led while President and during the Civil War is described in “Lincoln’s Personal Motives and Capacities for Reconciliation:”[3]

  1. Self-control and Forgiveness: His emotional balance in difficult situations was attributable to “acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.”[4]
  2. Empathy and Cognitive Complexity: His ability to show empathy helped his political efforts and ability to forgive others.[5]
  3. Optimism About Others’ Potential to Change: His own ability for intellectual growth helped him be optimistic for positive change in others.[6]
  4. Intellectual Formation and Reconciliation Policy: His habit of reading history and biography reinforced his tendency for precedent.[7]

With these qualities, Lincoln was successful in actively leading. His self-control and forgiveness was necessary during difficult times working with military generals who would not follow orders. His empathy and cognitive complexity helped him to create a proper so called “punishment” for the Confederates (South) after the Civil War ended because he said they would not necessarily be punished, but the result of the Union (North) ending the war over the Confederates would be that they would no longer be able to have slavery.

Lincoln’s optimism for others to change is probably best shown in his original plan that showed the war ending in 90 days. One of the saddest parts of Lincoln’s assassination only one week after the end of the Civil War was that many of his reformation and reconstruction ideas and policies were not implemented. In his mind he already had many great ideas to put our nation back together after the Civil War which were not carried out to their fullest capacities. Actively leading is something I do well. I am good at casting vision and actively plotting us to get there and making progress along the way. Due to the demand to be highly organized and administratively savvy at my current job, it has helped me to develop this quality of learning to actively lead (some would call this “project management”) which I am grateful to have learned about.

Question: What does it mean for you to actively lead in your life?

                [1] David Grubin, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, DVD (American Experience and PBS, 2005).

                [2] Thomas E. Schneider, “Lincoln and Leadership,” Perspectives on Political Science (Spring 2007), 71.

                [3] Daniel Lieberfeld, “Lincoln, Mandela, and Qualities of Reconciliation-oriented Leadership,” Peace and Conflict 15 (2009): 34-44.

                [4] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 607.

                [5] Daniel Lieberfeld, “Lincoln, Mandela, and Qualities of Reconciliation-oriented Leadership,” Peace and Conflict 15 (2009): 38.

                [6] Ibid., 40-41.

                [7] Ibid., 42.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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