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What aspiring leaders can learn from President Lincoln’s ‘team of rivals’

Collaboration takes skills, demands integrity and, most importantly, the ability to get along with supporters and rivals

Every aspiring leader — or lover of American history — should read “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kerns Goodwin. This hefty volume explores in detail how our nation’s 16th president employed collaboration to achieve great success, usually in the midst of great turmoil. And he did it by surrounding himself with other leaders, many of whom disagreed with Lincoln on critical issues. If fact, his administration included those he had defeated for the Republican Party presidential nomination — literally his rivals.

When Lincoln assumed the presidency in March 1861, he faced several daunting challenges:

  • Orchestrating the political response to the secession of the Confederate states
  • Raising and deploying the Union’s army
  • Finding effective and loyal generals to lead the Army of the Potomac

Perhaps most difficult of all, he was faced with managing the political and social factions demanding a response to slavery, but who held vastly different thoughts on what that response should be. Failing in any one of these areas would have likely led to failure in all.

Harnessing diverse and opposing views
Early in Lincoln’s career he realized the effectiveness of bringing together other leaders who often disagreed with each other, and with Lincoln himself. Yet by assembling these diverse voices, he was able to increase his knowledge of issues, and potential responses. He was often given credit by his rivals simply for listening to what they had to say. Lincoln also garnered respect from the public who, while maybe not supporting Lincoln directly, supported the rival Lincoln had the courage to listen to.

Lincoln’s style of harnessing diverse and opposing views might sound simple but, in fact, it was immensely challenging. Many whom Lincoln selected for roles in his administration initiated power plays against other men close to Lincoln, and even against Lincoln himself. Some were divisive, appearing to support Lincoln in public while opposing him in private. Others were passive-aggressive; General George McClellan was openly insubordinate, and known for making Lincoln wait in a sitting room when Lincoln visited.

Most of us, in our personal leadership practices, would never stand for much of what Lincoln was able to take in stride. Most leaders would immediately dismiss anyone who worked against them. Some leaders would even seek retribution, taking actions for revenge against their challenger. Yet Lincoln was above this. He understood that only through collaborative effort — which included recruiting strong, diverse, and opposing voices — could he achieve his goals. How did Lincoln manage these leadership challenges?

First, he deeply believed in the goals he sought to accomplish — from these he found strength to persevere. Second, he routinely used his famous sense of humor to defuse tense confrontations, and sooth the feelings of others. But his most valuable trait — and the key to creating and sustaining his team of rivals — was his ability to be magnanimous.

To be magnanimous means to be generous in forgiving an insult or injury. It means we have the ability to avoid pettiness and resentfulness, instead being faithful to our larger mission. It means we are willing to allow for a degree of pettiness from others, if they bring value in other aspects to our team.

Sometimes, Lincoln knew in advance that inviting a certain person to his team would demand managing that person in a magnanimous manner. Yet, if he needed the strengths that individual brought to the team, Lincoln offered the invitation. Magnanimity by a leader demands character, and the ability to act nobly — traits that defined Abraham Lincoln.

To be clear, being magnanimous doesn’t mean you allow others to run over you, or that you allow underperformers to linger in their position. Lincoln is also famous for replacing his generals until he found the one — Ulysses S. Grant — with whom he could achieve his goal of winning the war.

Today’s complex world demands collaborative action. Policing has never been more challenging than it is today, and the only way to respond is through collaborating with others in your agency, and with the community. Collaboration takes skills (which can be developed), demands integrity and, most importantly, the ability to get along with supporters and rivals. It demands the ability to act nobly, without pettiness or resentfulness. The key to collaborative success is the ability to be magnanimous

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek