Today’s Social Leaders Could Learn a Thing or Two From Abraham Lincoln

By Bruce Piasecki

It’s not easy to be a model of superior leadership.  Witness the recent demise of mighty firms such as General Motors. Add to that the parade of valuation scandals involving Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Worldcom’s Bernard Ebbers over the last fifteen years, the financial wizardry of a Bernie Madoff, and we must raise a new century fundamental question: How can we develop leaders that we can trust?  The clock on bad management is drawing near midnight.

We need in this new century a set of social and corporate leaders to address the global challenges of making business sustainable and profitable in a carbon and capital constrained world.

Abraham Lincoln’s skill as a leader offers important lessons for today’s business and social leaders. Not only one of our most revered presidents, Lincoln’s odds of success were deemed slim at the time of his election in 1861. Consider the following: Lincoln was the first Republican elected president in this country, and the first president elected with a minority of the popular vote. Ten days after he took office, the Confederate States of America seceded from the Union. Today’s CEOs might face this scenario in the form of a hostile takeover that left the company with half its assets.

Lincoln decided to engage in a head-to-head war for the survival of his country. He leveraged great resources, including his the famous team of rivals that made up his cabinet, mobilized a stunning range of human talents in his remaining asset base, and got an incredible result—a reunited nation. He knew how to compete in the swift and the severe world we all now know. Through direct field observation, he knew how to navigate the most turbulent waters with a sense of direction and corporate purpose. But in this new century, there are a particular set of Lincoln skills that need to go global as we go green.

Articulating paradox as one keeps a forward corporate and product brand momentum is necessary to make major improvements in hundred year old traditions in making cars and carpet, in leveraging energy access with energy intensity, and in producing new generations of products that pass the “eco” smart tests of today. This new frontier is not linear. It is swift, severe, and helps a few lift as it swamps many. It is a cleansing force, but it has the force of a wave, where market and regulatory conditions are requiring “better” not just “more.”

Lincoln was a master of articulate paradox, a skill necessary today to refine and reapply knowledge in response to the topsy-turvy global market. Today’s leaders need to react accordingly to such diverse stresses as insecure energy supplies, unstable governments and often invisible terrorist organizations.

That’s why we need a new generation of Lincolns to bring in significant change in corporations. Leading the charge  requires a new brand of leader, one who recognizes the future in a world that is swift and severe. We need this leader to compete on price, quality and social needs. A leader of the magnitude and caliber of a Lincoln or the articulate power of a Churchill can always help. But there are many supporting roles for each of us. What this job calls for is someone who can bring passion and focus to forge solutions in a more severe and rapidly changing world.

We need this kind of leadership in the private sector, running all of the companies of tomorrow, from large to small. Walmart and GE cannot do it alone. We need to develop leaders we can trust. The world of corporate decision making is not as linear and direct as one first learns in business school. Those beheaded, or those that bask in triumph, often do not follow direct routes.  We need leaders who actually stay on top of mounting social needs such as global climate change, health care reform and our ever shrinking natural resource base.


Bruce Piasecki is the President and Founder of the AHC Group Inc., which since 1981 has provided general management consulting and leadership benchmarking workshops for a range of corporate affiliates and clients. His latest book is The Surprising Solution: Creating Possibility in a Swift and Severe World.

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