Oct 24, 2016 | Leadership

If you ask a third grader what she knows about President Lincoln, she might draw you a picture of a tall, lanky, bearded man wearing a black suit and a stove top hat. If you ask a ninth grader the same question, he’ll likely recall that Lincoln was America’s president during the Civil War. When pressed, he may add that the Civil War was fought between the north and the south over the issue of slavery.

But, if you turn back the pages of American history, you’ll find that President Lincoln saw the Civil War in a much larger context. Not only was America wrestling with the question of slavery, Lincoln felt the Civil War was nothing short of a test of whether a country was capable of governing itself. The world was watching and waiting for the experiment to crumble. The republic set forth by the founding fathers was on the brink of failure – an asterisk in history – an 80-plus year rebellion that would inevitably revert to rule by monarchy.

Lincoln knew that preserving the union could only happen by tapping into the power of diversity. Here are three lessons in diversity that today’s leaders can take from Lincoln’s playbook:

1. Assemble a Team of Rivals.  In her book, Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln brilliantly assembled a cabinet from his Republican opponents to preserve the Union and win the Civil War. None of these men had high regard for Lincoln. But, Lincoln did not want a group of “yes” men to agree with his every decision. He wanted a cabinet of passionate advisors who could shed light on the complex issues facing the country, were free to question his authority, and who were unafraid to argue with him.

The Lesson. Surround yourself with smart people and encourage them to challenge your ideas. Relying on people who think just like you can lead to group think and rubber stamp leadership. Neither you nor your organization will benefit.

2. Allow Your Ideas to Evolve.  Lincoln was unsure what to do if slavery ended. For most of his career, he saw slaves as a group of people who had been uprooted from their own society and unjustly brought to America. He saw no way for freed slaves to live peaceably among white Americans. Instead, Lincoln advocated for colonization – sending a majority of the African-American population to settle in Africa or Central America. In the last two years of his life though, he began to see the possibility of diversity. Freed slaves were joining the Union Army and serving in the Navy by the thousands. Black leaders argued that African-American were as much natives of the country as whites. By the time the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, all mention of colonization was eliminated.

The Lesson. When you take a leadership position, you become privy to information that you did not have before. Don’t let your bias keep you from holding onto outdated opinions when presented with new facts from diverse sources.

3. Listen Intently, Then Be Decisive.  Lincoln’s cabinet often debated slavery late into the night. Finally, he made up his mind. He brought the cabinet together and told them he no longer needed their thoughts on the main issue, but he would listen to their suggestions about how best to implement his decision and its timing. Some members still did not support Lincoln’s decision, but they felt they’d been heard.

The Lesson. If you wait to make a decision until you have perfect information, it’s no longer a decision, it’s a foregone conclusion.

The most successful leaders know how to leverage the power of diversity. They seek out diverse perspectives, evolve their opinions as they get new information, and know when to stop collecting input and be decisive.

Question: Which of these lessons in diversity can improve your leadership journey? 


Join us at our next Re:Imagine Leadership Summit April 27 in San Diego! Success doesn’t happen by luck. It’s intentional. Without a leadership roadmap, your team will wander aimlessly through shifting priorities leaving them confused about the purpose of their jobs. Come to a one-day immersion in transformative leadership crafted to inspire and engage you.


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