Lincoln on Leadership Essay

Lincoln on Leadership Essay

While there are thousands and thousands of business books in print today, many of them contain outdated ideas or are so technical that no one can really understand them. However, there are relevant business books in print that contain ideas and principles which have stood the test of time and are still of value to the businesspeople of today. Such is the case in Donald T. Phillips’ 1992 book Lincoln on Leadership, a book which is able to present a great deal of important information about Abraham Lincoln’s management style in an informal and easy to understand format.

In this research, the discussion will focus on principles in the book that are important for a manager to know and understand. Ultimately, this paper will not only discuss one of the most popular management books focusing on one of the most popular figures in American history, but will also reveal how some of Lincoln’s best known ideas apply to the modern day manager and business professional.

Concept 1- Everyone Likes a Compliment

In reading Phillips’ book, one of the concepts which came out with such universal value and appropriateness was one which is directly attributed to Lincoln himself. In 1865, Lincoln wrote to a colleague, saying “Everyone likes a compliment” (Phillips, 1992, p. 18). When this idea is really thought about in depth, building a relationship with those under you in the company structure, as well as equals and superiors, can be gained through the simple recognition of what these people do well. This can also be related to a personal experience; in the past, this researcher has in fact gained favorable project assignments and promotions by building relationships through compliments to the right people, keeping in mind that the compliments should never be excessive or untrue. Sincerity especially counts in this situation.

Concept 2- Good Managers Listen as Well as Talk

Whether one believes it or not, the fact of the matter is that Lincoln was considered to be incompetent by the members of his cabinet when he first assumed the presidency (Phillips, 1992), requiring him to do something that would earn the respect of these individuals, which of course would lead to his becoming one of America’s greatest leaders. One of the ways that Lincoln did this was by developing the ability to listen to the compliments as well as criticisms of his subordinates, and only respond when he had the facts firmly in mind. This talent has served this researcher quite well over the years, as the ability to listen before talking has allowed for the learning of new skills, the building of key relationships, and like Lincoln, the earning of trust from subordinates.

As another personal thought, what needs to be understood about subordinates is that they are almost always suspicious and doubting of the abilities of a new manager; the manager rarely gains immediate respect or cooperation from those who are working for them. It is how the manager chooses to interact with his or her team that makes the difference between a cooperative relationship or a hostile one. Therefore, when equipped with listening skills, the manager is able to show that they have a true interest in even the lowest ranking of their subordinates.

Concept 3-Seek Casual Contact with Subordinates

In addition to the formalized interaction with subordinates, Lincoln frequently sought casual contact with those individuals as well. According to Phillips in Lincoln on Leadership, Lincoln would spend 75% of his time in casual meetings with people (p. 16). It was through this type of a setting that Lincoln was often able to get honest feedback and information from people who may be overly reserved and apprehensive in a formal meeting setting. This has been found to be the case in the researcher’s business dealings as well; casual situations, from company outings to socializing outside of company time or agendas has always netted this researcher much more honest and complete information than any formal request for information that has taken place “on the clock”. It is a fact that relaxed people are cooperative people.


In this paper, it was possible to use a prominent and popular business book to discuss key business principles, and to relate them to real-life situations, not only in the present day, but also in the context of some of the most trying times for any leader in the history of the world. Therefore, in conclusion, what needs to be understood is that there are some ideas and principles which stand the test of time, and can be used as effectively today and tomorrow as they were over a century ago. In other words, quality stands up over time.


Phillips, D.T. (1992). Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York: Warner Books.

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