Abraham Lincoln was a hugely gifted writer and speaker — a truly great communicator. And he was almost entirely self-taught. He had less than one year of formal education in his whole life, yet from early childhood he was an extremely diligent reader and writer. As this article continues and we look at examples of Lincoln’s words, you’ll see how virtually everything he wrote or said had a unique stamp of greatness — a combination of humility and authority like no one else in history.
Lincoln was also a great father and husband — a genius of relationships, although he would never have used or understood that word in the way we do today. Lincoln suffered some severe disappointments in his personal life. The first woman he loved, Ann Rutledge, died at a very young age. He later became the husband of Mary Todd, a woman whom historians have often described as having severe emotional problems. Five of her brothers died in the Civil War, fighting on the Confederate side. Certainly the Lincolns had a lot to endure in their own personal lives. They had four sons, and only one lived to reach adulthood. Lincoln worked hard to console his wife after the death of their son Tad, who died of illness at the age of 18, during the Civil War. Mary’s emotional problems caused her to be hospitalized for a time after the president’s death, but during his lifetime he was devoted to her and committed to keeping his family together.
Although Lincoln did not regularly attend church and was not affiliated with any formal religion, the depth of his belief in God is tremendously clear in his letters and speeches. Lincoln conveyed a deep connection with his Creator. He espoused an intensity and intimacy of his religious faith, which is expressed in virtually all his most important writings and speeches.
Lincoln lived at a time when men did hard physical work, and great strength was not at all unusual. But Lincoln was described by many people as the strongest person they had ever seen. He was six feet four and weighed about 180 pounds. He had the kind of wiry strength that we see today in many professional basketball players. Besides winning several running and broad-jumping contests as a young man, he was famous as a wrestler — and he was supposed to have been able to hold two axes at arm’s length just by gripping the ends of the handles. If you think that’s easy, try it with a rake or a spade the next time you’re doing some yard work. Just don’t make any bets on how well you’ll do!
On top of all this, Lincoln also received a patent for a system he designed to improve the balance of steamboats. He was a true American hero and genius.
As we look more closely at what Lincoln said, and especially at what he did, I think you’ll see what made him so remarkable as a leader and as a human being. You’ll also see how those same qualities — that same potential for greatness — exist within yourself. The same tools that Lincoln used to manifest his greatness are available to you. Like Lincoln, you can learn, first, to be the leader of your own life. From there you can go on to lead others — and deserve to lead them.
From humble beginnings
Abraham Lincoln really was born in a log cabin. The fact that he went on to become president — and to lead the country through the most difficult period of its history — is truly remarkable. It’s even more amazing when you consider what it took to be an important leader in the middle of the 19th century. Although we hear a lot about people like Lincoln or Andrew Jackson or Ulysses S. Grant — people who came from nothing to wield great power — these were most definitely the exceptions who proved the rule. And the rule was, most successful people started out with all the advantages. Financially, it was much harder to get rich 150 years ago than it is today — and if you failed, it was much harder to get back on your feet. There was no safety net from the government or from anywhere else to make sure that you didn’t go hungry. In those days, it was every man for himself.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the things that Lincoln faced and overcame. You’ve probably seen lists similar to this, describing Lincoln’s failures, but I’d like to go through it again in order to make some important points, which we’ll take up immediately after the list. As you’re reading this, think of setbacks you’ve faced in your own life, and how you responded to them.
In 1832, Lincoln was working in a general store in Illinois when he decided to run for the state legislature. But the election was some months away, and before it took place, the general store went bankrupt and Lincoln was out of a job. So he joined the army and served three months. When he got out, it was almost time for the election — which he lost.
Then, with a partner, Lincoln opened a new general store. His partner embezzled from the business, and the store went broke. And shortly thereafter the partner died, leaving Lincoln with debts that took several years to pay off.
In 1834, Lincoln ran again for the state legislature, and this time he won. He was even elected to three more terms of two years each. During this period, however, Lincoln also suffered some severe emotional problems. Today he would have been categorized as clinically depressed. In the past, historians connected this to the death of Lincoln’s first love — a woman named Ann Rutledge. While this may not have been the cause, there’s no doubt that for some reason Lincoln was now in a very difficult state of mind. A year or so later he proposed to another woman named Mary Owens, from Kentucky. She didn’t die, but she did turn him down with the words, “I thought Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links that make up the chain of a woman’s happiness.”
By 1836, Lincoln had become a licensed attorney. At that time, a law degree was not required to pass the bar exam, and Lincoln had been studying on his own for years. He later became a circuit-riding lawyer, traveling from county to county in Illinois to plead cases in different jurisdictions. He was one of the most diligent of all the lawyers doing this kind of work, and between 1849 and 1860 he missed only two court sessions on the circuit. Lincoln enjoyed the challenge of courtroom work and the opportunities for reading brought by long hours on the road.
In 1838, he was defeated in an attempt to become Speaker of the Illinois legislature, and in 1843 he was defeated in an attempt to win nomination for Congress. In 1846, he was elected to Congress, but in 1848, he had to leave because his party had a policy of limiting terms. In 1854, he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate. In 1856, he lost the nomination for vice president, and in 1858, he was again defeated in a race for the Senate. Yet in spite of all these setbacks, in 1860, he was elected president of the United States.
What can we learn about Lincoln from looking at this chronology? To me, the most remarkable thing is how every time Lincoln failed at something, he was soon trying for something even bigger. When he loses his seat in the state legislature, he runs for the national congress. When he loses a bid for the Senate, he tries to become vice president — and when he loses the Senate race again, he winds up president of the country.
Lincoln was a man with a sense of mission. He saw himself as a leader long before anyone else did. He may have failed many times, but somehow he always failed upward. He was propelled by a sense of mission, and he was willing and able to do whatever it took to get that great mission accomplished.
Lincoln’s mission was to save the union from some internal contradictions that had existed since the founding of the country. Slavery was the most important expression of those contradictions. From the very first, Lincoln saw himself as part of a greater mission, not just as a successful lawyer or a judge or the owner of a general store. To him, all those things were way stations on the way to something much bigger and more important.
In 1831, when he was 22 years old, Lincoln was hired to build a flatboat and take it down the Mississippi with a load of cargo. It is said that on that trip, Lincoln witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans. He said, “If I ever get to hit that thing” — meaning the institution of slavery — “I will hit it hard.”
This is really remarkable. Here’s a 22-year-old man who’s essentially a manual laborer, with no education or connections, and he’s thinking about the effect he wants to have on the major issues of the country.
So this is a powerful principle for you to consider: Lincoln saw himself as a leader long before he was one. In fact, he saw himself as the leader, right from the first. This wasn’t arrogance or empty ambition. It was a sense of ultimate purpose in service of a worthy cause.
How can you bring that sense of mission into your own life? What are your big, worthy dreams? If you’re fortunate enough to be like Lincoln, are there are goals that you recognized from the first, and that you’ve continued to pursue no matter what setbacks have intervened? If that’s the case, then you’re already on the right road — you’ve mastered the art of leading your life in the direction you want it to go — but I do want to repeat the question I asked before: What are your big, worthy dreams? And I want to emphasize worthy. Having an expensive car or a boat doesn’t count. Those things are great, but can you see the difference between wanting material success and wanting to make a truly big difference in the world, the way Lincoln did? It’s the difference between just being successful for your own sake, in very conventional terms — and being a true leader, not just for yourself, but for other people as well. In Lincoln’s case, it was for all people.
A man of great inner strength
We’ve seen how, from very early in his life, Lincoln had a very clear sense of purpose on a very large scale. We’ve seen how he was determined to save the union, and how the abolition of slavery was synonymous with that goal. Abraham Lincoln saw himself leading the United States of America in that direction, just as the biblical Abraham led his family in the direction that God told them to go.
That sounds very beautiful — and it was — but now I want to emphasize an aspect of what I like to call Lincoln’s “leadership genius” that usually gets less attention.
Abraham Lincoln had amazing inner strength. He used humor, work, and religion to cope with his inner challenges. In fact, Lincoln may have been the kind of leader who actually needed the demands of leadership to distract him from the inner turmoil that might otherwise have gained the upper hand. In this sense, he used what might have been a weakness as fuel for his achievements.
In today’s world, it would never be possible for a person with Abraham Lincoln’s psychological profile to achieve an important leadership position. Albert Einstein would have been considered a problem child for his failure to speak and his poor performance in school. Thomas Edison would almost certainly have been diagnosed as hyperactive, and medication would have been prescribed for him. Lincoln would have been considered clinically depressed.
By pointing this out, I’m not saying that these aren’t real problems that need professional help. Instead, I just want to emphasize the fact that these great men weren’t free of the problems that real human beings face in the real world. Lincoln wasn’t a magnificent leader because he struggled, but his ability to transcend and even use his difficulties was an element of his greatness.
Let me try to explain why this ability is so important, both for leadership and for success of all kinds. I once read a study of how young soldiers are trained for elite parachute divisions — how they learn to do something that’s very unnatural, like jumping out of an airplane. Among these trainees, a certain number encounter problems when they try to make their first jump. They freeze up at the door of the plane. The purpose of the study was to find out why this happens, and to try to prevent it.
It turned out that a certain percentage of the trainees believed they would do very well when the time came to make their first jump — and those who thought they would do well, usually did do well. They knew that some people panicked, but they didn’t see themselves as being among that number. Then there were soldiers who thought they would do badly, who were very much afraid that they would not be able to make the jump. By and large, these people also did well. They may have been afraid in their hearts and minds, but their fears weren’t expressed in their actions.
So who were the soldiers that froze? They were the ones who had never considered that possibility. They didn’t think they would do well, and they didn’t think they would do badly. They were just out of touch with the reality of their inner selves — until their inner selves suddenly showed up at the door of the airplane.
It’s tempting to think that our leaders should be without weaknesses, but that’s by no means the truth. Leaders should not be without weaknesses that they’re unaware of. Leaders should not be out of touch with what’s going on in their minds and hearts. That awareness in itself is much more important than what challenges it reveals.
Is there anything about yourself that you suspect might disqualify you from being an effective leader? The truth is, those vulnerabilities are probably the essence of your leadership genius. What are they? How can you turn these perceived weaknesses into your strengths? These are questions that will take more than a few minutes to answer — but I urge you to keep them in mind as you reflect on the topic of the leadership genius of Abraham Lincoln and how you can apply these same principles to your own life.
Friends, not enemies
If you read through the collected writings of Abraham Lincoln, you’ll come across many interesting and surprising things. For me, one of the most unexpected documents was a letter Lincoln wrote in the year 1842. The letter was to a man named Mr. Shields. Offended by an article that Lincoln had written in a local newspaper, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.
Lincoln’s response to this is absolutely characteristic of how he always responded to attacks and anger — whether they came from a single individual, like this man named Shields, or from a much more formidable adversary like the Confederate States of America.
Specifically, Lincoln’s first impulse was always to extend the hand of friendship. In his reply to Shields, he denies any intention to have caused harm — but then he offers to write a letter to the newspaper publicly apologizing for his article and praising Shields as a very wonderful and respectable man. Toward the end of the letter, however, Lincoln recognizes the possibility that Shields might not accept his apology. In that case, under the rules of dueling, it was the responsibility of the challenged party to state the weapons and the rules of the encounter. Lincoln suggests “cavalry broadswords of the largest size.” He also suggests that the fight take place on a plank 10 feet long and 12 inches wide. So you would have two people swinging away at each other with huge swords while standing on a narrow board. To put it mildly, there’s a good chance somebody would have gotten hurt! But the duel never took place. The two men reconciled without the swordfight, and without Lincoln’s writing the letter of apology.
This carrot-and-stick approach was something that Lincoln used again and again. It was really fundamental to his style as a leader and as a human being. He always wanted to be friends first. This quality was expressed so beautifully in his First Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1861. There’s something really tragic about the way Lincoln is reaching out in these words, in view of the fact that the start of the Civil War was just a few weeks away. This is what Lincoln said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Four years later, there were more than 600,000 dead. This exceeds the number of Americans killed in all our other wars put together. Yet Lincoln still holds out the olive branch, this time to the vanquished foe. He had only six weeks to live when he gave his Second Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1865. It’s often considered his greatest speech. You may have heard these words before, but they’re well worth hearing again. As you read, I know there will be no doubt in your mind that this man was both a great leader, and a great soul.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Today we think of Abraham Lincoln in terms of the great successes he achieved. We remember him as an immensely strong figure who would succeed no matter what. This certainly isn’t the way many people saw Lincoln in his own time, and it isn’t really fair to him if we overlook the tremendous obstacles he had to overcome. These obstacles existed in both his personal and his public life, and it’s truly amazing that Lincoln was able to be such an effective leader in spite of them. Abraham Lincoln is truly an inspiration, one man we will continue to learn from whenever our minds or pages turn to this great American leader.