The smart money predicts that the film Lincoln will sweep the Oscars. Where Hollywood goes, so will go the nation. Here are six lessons general counsel can learn from the 16th president.
No. 1: Mission over ego. Necessity, not vanity, drove Lincoln's decision-making during the Civil War. Check out this dramatic passage from David Von Drehle's book, Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year. General George B. McClellan commanded the Union's Army of the Potomac. He was young, arrogant and disrespectful to the president. Once, he even insulted Lincoln and an aide by leaving them, unacknowledged, in his living room, while striding past them to his upstairs bedroom for the night.
"The unpardonable arrogance of the epaulets," fumed the assistant. Lincoln quietly replied, "This is not the time to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity."
Simply put, Lincoln needed McClellan to organize an army that was, in Lincoln's view, "utterly demoralized." Von Drehle writes of Lincoln's shrewd assessment: "McClellan has the army with him … [and] we must use the tools we have; he excels in making others ready to fight."
Remember, when in doubt, dial back ego.
No. 2: Salvage if possible; fire when necessary. McClellan invaded Virginia in a brilliant amphibious landing, just like General Douglas MacArthur at Inchon, South Korea, but without any follow-up. McClellan implored Lincoln for unneeded reinforcements. While frustrated, Lincoln understood this: Firing someone is easy, but replacing him is harder.
Lincoln wrote to McClellan on April 9, 1862. Von Drehle quotes the letter: "It is the precise time to strike a blow. … I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness. But you must act." Von Drehle writes that this was Lincoln at his best, "combining force with sympathy."
It is a template of an effective memo to a subordinate or an outside firm: Question assumptions. Provide rationales. Explain the peril. Show empathy. End with direction. Once Lincoln had a more powerful political footing, he cashiered McClellan. But he tried.
No. 3: Acknowledge mistakes. Want the respect of subordinates? Seneca called loyalty, not obedience, "the holiest virtue in the human heart." Lincoln illuminates the way. And there is no better example than that laid out by the great historian James M. McPherson in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.
In July 1863, Lincoln was frustrated by Ulysses S. Grant's inability to conquer Vicksburg, a fortress of the Confederacy sitting atop the Mississippi, and openly questioned his strategy. Grant acted as his lights dictate and Vicksburg fell.