Four Lincoln Business Principles For the 21st Century Executive

Lincoln is hot. Spurred by Steven Spielberg’s epic film that has grossed $244 million worldwide, led the Oscar pack with 12 nominations and earned Daniel Day Lewis the award for Best Actor, there is a renewed appreciation for the President who abolished slavery and saved the Union. We admire his moral fiber, courage, strength, and determination. And while we don’t usually think of him in this way, Lincoln was the consummate Chief Executive.

Here are four Lincoln lessons that we can apply to our approach to business:

1. Have the courage of your convictions. While the fate of the Union hung in the balance and amid threats on his life, Lincoln knew what he had to do and he did it. He had the courage to make unpopular decisions. It’s not always easy, but do the right thing. Don’t be swayed by political expediency or take the easy way out. It’s the best way to earn the respect of colleagues and clients.

2. Surround yourself with good people who will tell you what you don’t want to hear. Lincoln’s Cabinet was comprised of a “team of rivals,” many of whom he had defeated for the nomination. There wasn’t a yes-man in sight. Be open minded. Listen to alternative views. Try to understand how you’re being perceived. Be willing to shift gears if it helps you achieve your goals.

3. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Whether it’s a meeting with senior executives at your own company or a client presentation, do your homework, practice your pitch and sharpen your axe. Not only will you be ready for any possible resistance to your ideas, but you’ll have the confidence you need to prevail.

4. Be in tune with your colleagues, your senior management and your clients. Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that Lincoln triumphed because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of others, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires. Take the time to find out what makes your stakeholders tick. It’s not one-size-fits-all. Tailor your approach to each personality—it’s worth the effort.

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