Abraham Lincoln had less leadership experience than previous presidents. George Washington and Andrew Jackson were generals, some had been governors, and the Southerners owned plantations. Yet Lincoln filled the office of president so effectively that he regularly tops historians’ ranking of great presidents.
Which of his principles of action can guide has successors?
Cite precedent. Ever the lawyer, he found precedents and men he could look up to in America’s founding fathers. His career was a long effort to show that his positions were those of the founding fathers, especially when it came to slavery, human nature, liberty and equality.
Make your case. Lincoln could play inside baseball, says biographer Richard Brookhiser. He could make deals and manipulate colleagues when he had to. He recognized that democracies are not ruled by such maneuvers but by the people. Lincoln once said, “Public opinion in this country is everything.” It depends on wooing, shaping and educating public opinion.
Use Humor. He often used jokes to distract people he knew he couldn’t satisfy immediately. His humor worked on a deeper level to keep things in proportion, reminding people that they shouldn’t be surprised at the unexpected, but carry on, jauntily if possible.
Put principles first. His position against slavery was well established. In 1860, he ended the Cooper Union Address with this appeal to fellow Republicans: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in the faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Be inclusive. The Republican party, formed in 1854-56, included longtime abolitionists, Whigs, Democrats, and Know Nothings, who disliked both slavery and immigrants. Some called his cabinet the “Team of Rivals.”
In his 1854 Peoria speech, Lincoln said, “Stand with anybody that stands with RIGHT. Stand with him while he’s RIGHT and part with him when he goes wrong.”
It worked for Lincoln and might work for you.