How Abraham Lincoln Mastered Collaboration: 4 Key Elements

Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washongton DC

Do executive leaders always have a clear idea of what powerful collaboration looks like? Do they always understand what it takes to build high-quality, result-focused collaboration between and across teams, and how they themselves can set the right example for the organizations they lead? What can we learn from Abraham Lincoln when it comes to collaboration?

Today in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and it so happens that the highest standard of powerful collaboration I know was set by Lincoln and his Secretary of War, the short and sturdy Edwin Stanton.

Four things stand out in the way Abraham Lincoln collaborated with his War Secretary to lead his country through the civil war:

1. Lincoln and Stanton turned their differences into strengths

Don’t just take my word for it, and read what Stanton’s private secretary A.E. Johnson wrote about their collaboration back in 1891:

“No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike. The secretiveness, which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity, which Stanton could not feel, coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea in moments of the greatest peril; Stanton would lash himself into a fury over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan; Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature…yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”

2. Lincoln always backed Stanton up in public, even if most of his decisions were unpopular (and that’s an understatement)

“I cannot add to Mr. Stanton’s troubles. His position is one of the most difficult in the world. Thousands in the army blame him because they are not promoted and other thousands out of the army blame him because they are not appointed. The pressure upon him is immeasurable and unending. He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar without ceasing. He fights back the angry waters and prevents them from undermining and overwhelming the land. Gentlemen, I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed. He performs his task superhumanly. Now do not mind this matter, for Mr. Stanton is right and I cannot wrongly interfere with him.”

3. Lincoln used the power of humor to get his way when needed

Or how is this for an effective order: ‘Appoint this man, regardless of whether he knows the color of Julius Caesar’s hair or not. A. Lincoln.’

4. The Lincoln-Stanton collaboration was based on mutual trust

Here’s the letter Stanton, devastated by Lincoln’s death, received from Lincoln’s private secretary John Hay:

“Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how in vain were all the efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn. All this will be known some time of course, to his honor and yours.”

How did the two men, you might wonder, get to know each other? They first met during the trial of a patent case, six years before Lincoln was elected president. Lincoln, then an unknown lawyer, had worked day and night in preparation of his speech for the defendant. When he reached out to Stanton, the lead counsel, he was greeted with the words “Why is this long-armed ape here?” Stanton, educated at a fine university (Lincoln was self-taught), didn’t hide the fact that he looked down on Lincoln. He refused to let him give his speech. He never asked him out for lunch. He ignored him the entire trial.

Why did Lincoln, hurt and humiliated to the bone, sat down on his pride when he needed a Secretary of War? Why did he call Stanton to the White House six years later? Because he had seen how talented he was, and knew he would be the right man for the job. Now that’s collaborative leadership. That is why Lincoln still sets a great example for executive leaders, and indeed all of us, today.

‘Now he belongs to the ages’, Stanton said when Lincoln passed away in the Petersen boarding house right across Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865, 7.22 AM. So think about Lincoln and how he mastered the art of collaboration, and pass this story on.

All quotes are taken from the (Dutch) book ‘Abraham Lincoln, About Myself’ (Abraham Lincoln, Over Mezelf), Hanneke Siebelink , 2009.
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Hanneke is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her research focuses on how leaders create success by increasing the quality and effectiveness of people collaboration, particularly in cross-cultural environments. She has a special interest in China and East-West relations. Her work is a constant source of refinement and enrichment for the HRS alignment methodology. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

One Comment on “How Abraham Lincoln Mastered Collaboration: 4 Key Elements

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 16 April 2014 | 5blogs

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