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Learning Humility From Lincoln

Lincoln proved that a leader's greatest victory is over his own ego.

Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial

Abraham Lincoln is regarded by many as the virtual personification of emotional intelligence. Like few others in the corridors of history, Lincoln’s ability to regulate his emotions was the key to an emotional intelligence that produced extraordinary levels of humility. Humility does not come easy to any leader, least of all a President, but the 16th President of the United States was different.

Lincoln was a masterful leader because he was able to master his own ego first, and this was obvious even at the very start of his career.

"Young and unknown to many," is how Lincoln described himself when he first ran for office at the age of 23. He, nevertheless, promised that if elected, he would "be unremitting" in his efforts "to compensate." This was certainly not a proud man. Indeed, so humble was he that he openly discussed losing before the election. He acknowledged he had "been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined," if he was ultimately defeated, which, of course, he was. Failure to win election to the State legislature, however, didn’t cause him to lose heart. He carried on putting himself forward, but for all his subsequent successes, no one would have predicted his becoming President before it actually happened. As Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in Time magazine, when he ran for President "his entire national political experience consisted of a single term in Congress that had come to an end nearly a dozen years earlier and two failed Senate races. He had absolutely no administrative experience and only one year of formal schooling. Newspapers described him as 'a third-rate Western lawyer' and a 'fourth-rate lecturer.'" Yet, his main rivals for the Republican nomination were William Henry Seward, a celebrated Senator for New York who had been a two term Governor of his state, Salmon P. Chase from Ohio who had also been a Senator and Governor of his state, and the much respected long serving former Congressman, Edward Bates. Despite this, when he beat them to the nomination and then won the election - much to everyone's amazement at the time - instead of consigning his opponents to oblivion, he appointed them all to his cabinet. He recognized their great gifts and, even though newspapers at the time cited this as evidence of his total political naïveté, Lincoln's logic for doing so was simple, "I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their service."

He put his own ego aside to appoint who ever he thought was best for the country, when ever a post needed to be filled. Edwin Stanton was a former colleague from Lincoln's days as a lawyer. They didn't exactly get along, however. When they were partners on the same case, Stanton described him as a "long-armed ape." He looked down on Lincoln immensely, even to the point of refusing to deal with him directly or read his briefs. Yet when the time came to replace Simon Cameron, his first Secretary of War, it was Stanton who he appointed to the job. He was simply, in Lincoln's view, the best person for it.

Lincoln's humility was a hallmark of the way he conducted himself in office, as one keen Lincoln observer noticed. "You know, when I think about Abraham Lincoln, what I'm struck by is the fact that he constantly learned on the job. He got better. You know, he wasn't defensive. He wasn't arrogant about his tasks. He was very systematic in saying, 'I'm going to master the job, and I understand it's going to take some time.'" Recalled President Obama who has always seen Lincoln's modus operandi as a model for his own.

After Stanton's appointment, Lincoln issued an authorization to the War Department for an initiative a Congressman had proposed. Stanton refused to carry it out, saying that Lincoln was a fool for issuing it. "Did Stanton say I was a damn fool?" Lincoln asked the Congressman when he reported back to him. "He did, sir, and repeated it." At which point, Lincoln opined, "If Stanton said I was a damn fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means."

Lincoln was supremely relaxed about being outshone by those around him. When General Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Washington in 1864 to take command of all the Union armies, a White House reception welcomed him as a conquering hero while Lincoln stood to one side, ceding the place of honor he would normally have occupied. At one point Grant took several strategic steps in the war that Lincoln feared may be a terrible mistake, when Grant subsequently delivered a spectacular victory, however, Lincoln was quick to turn around and concede his own misjudgment, "I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong." He then added, "I frequently make mistakes myself, in the many things I am compelled to do hastily."

Like few leaders the world has known, Lincoln proved that any leader's first and greatest victory is always that over his own ego.

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