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Thinkin Lincoln

In case you missed it, yesterday was Abraham Lincoln's 203rd birthday. Not particularly a noteworthy one, but pertinent nevertheless because I was reminded of being recently asked about my favorite business book. While there are many that I like a lot - I find myself referring to "Outliers" quite a bit; the new Jobs biography is terrific; and you can't go wrong espousing "Built to Last" or "Good to Great" - my favorite might surprise you.

Maybe it's just being a little contrary, but I'm a one-man mission promoting a book about Abraham Lincoln as the best business book of all time. I knew it would be a great historical read when I picked up "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin back in 2005, but I didn't expect to find it so illuminating on a business level.

We all know how his story ends, but the title speaks to Lincoln's genius in surrounding himself with people who thought differently than he did. You might be familiar with David Ogilvy's famous admonition to, "Hire people better than yourself." Well, Abe took that to a whole new level, though David wouldn't utter his famous words for another four score and seven or so years.

Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" was his Cabinet consisting of, among others, three men who, in 1860, each thought they were eminently more qualified to be president than Lincoln. Each considered Abe a country rube who won the nomination only by a quirk of destiny, and destination (the 1860 Republican Convention was held in Chicago). Each joined his Cabinet because they saw it as a springboard for their own presidential aspirations in 1864:

•    Salmon Chase, a cutting edge abolitionist from Ohio, was Treasury Secretary.
•    William Seward, a moderate abolitionist from New York, was Secretary of State.
•    Edwin Bates, a conservative from Missouri, was Attorney General.
•    Edwin Stanton, a lawyer from Ohio who three years earlier had publically mocked Lincoln, was named Secretary of War in 1862.

All of these men, except the irrepressible Chase, came to adore Lincoln, just as we have. Through Lincoln's resoluteness of character and purpose, he was able to look beyond their pettiness and personal ambition to draw upon the best qualities of these confident and cavalier men. This, in turn, crafted a cadence to move the divided country forward in a way that kept it from splitting in all directions. For a homespun remedy from an 1860's rail splitter, that's still a pretty good prescription for leadership of a 21st century business.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that whether you are leading a country or a company, you need to set the right pace, no matter how convinced you are of the rectitude of your direction.

Then as now, people can't get behind you if you're too far ahead of them.