I’ve always loved reading about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. For Lincoln fans, Doris Kearns’ book Team of Rivals is about as good as it gets. The book gives a quick overview of Abraham Lincoln’s early life, but then focuses most heavily on the year leading up to the 1860 Presidential election and the subsequent Civil War years. It’s a fabulous read in at least two different respects. First, for history buffs, it’s the best book I’ve ever read on the Civil War. Very well done, historically precise yet entertaining. Second, Doris Kearns paints a fascinating picture of Lincoln’s unique style of leadership, and how it played out through the intense, pressure cooker atmosphere of the Civil War years.
The title of the book, Team of Rivals, aptly describes the most unusual aspect of Lincoln’s leadership style. In the months leading up to the 1860 Republican National Convention, Lincoln was a dark horse for the Republican nomination. He was a relatively unknown country lawyer from Springfield, IL. His rivals included William Seward, the odds-on favorite to win the nomination and a well-known Senator from New York, Salmon Chase, a Senator from Ohio, and William Bates, a judge from Missouri. No one really gave Lincoln a chance, but due to some last minute doubts about the other candidates, Lincoln emerged as the unexpected Republican nominee. As we all know, he then went on to win the general election.
The three men Lincoln defeated for the Republican nomination were initially bitter toward, even envious of, Lincoln. As Lincoln began forming his Cabinet, everyone assumed he would appoint people loyal to him, supporters who had helped him win the nomination and the general election. After all, that’s the way politics works! But to everyone’s surprise, Lincoln appointed each of his three primary rivals (Seward, Chase, and Bates) to key positions in his Cabinet, Seward and Chase to arguably the two most important positions (Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury). The country was stunned, and many questioned Lincoln’s leadership ability. Many thought he would be “outfoxed” by his more experienced former rivals. What was Lincoln up to and why didn’t he bring his cronies around him?
But Lincoln had a different plan. With the Civil War just starting and the country facing its most challenging time since the Revolutionary War, Lincoln knew he needed the best leaders, the best minds, giving him advice every day. He knew adding his rivals to the Cabinet would make his life less comfortable and more stressful than if he appointed his loyal friends and supporters. After all, they wouldn’t challenge his ideas and decisions. He also knew his three former rivals might undermine him, might even chase after their own agenda or self-interest. But Lincoln also knew that excluding them from his Cabinet wouldn’t be best for the country. He needed to hear the strong opinions of people who thought differently from him daily. He needed to have his ideas challenged so he could make sure he was making the best decisions.
So he appointed the most qualified people he could find, whether they were loyal supporters or not. Cabinet meetings were at times a free for all. Time and time again members of the Cabinet got upset and threatened to resign. Lincoln’s loyal supporters couldn’t figure out why Lincoln put up with this, why he didn’t fire Cabinet members who were insubordinate. But Lincoln was steadfast. He wanted the best minds in the room. Even if they fought. Even if they were disrespectful to him, even if they belittled him. Kearns captures this well late in the book when she described Lincoln’s Cabinet as that “remarkable group of rivals whom Lincoln had brought into his official family . . . they have fiercely opposed one another and often contested their chief on important questions, but, as Seward later remarked, ‘a Cabinet which should agree at once on every question would be no better or safer than one counselor.’ “
One particular case illustrated Lincoln’s approach particularly well. In the lead up to the 1864 election, Salmon Chase was clearly angling to run for President, while at the same time remaining in Lincoln’s Cabinet. He said things that were self-serving, worked behind Lincoln’s back, and often portrayed Lincoln (inaccurately) in a bad light. Lincoln’s supporters urged him to fire Chase, but he refused. Chase was doing a masterful job financing the war at the Department of Treasury. Lincoln didn’t want to lose that, even if it meant keeping one of his political rivals in a place of power and influence. Even if it meant a threat to his re-election. Again, what was best for the country came before his own personal comfort and interest.
I find Lincoln’s approach challenging as I think about my own leadership. Who wants to bring more stress and conflict into their life? But Lincoln’s story illustrates well the importance of having a diverse, talented group of people around you as you make challenging decisions and chart the course for your organization. Lincoln modeled well the principle that leaders need to care more about the health of their organization than their own comfort.