Abe the Aloof

Most people believe that Abraham Lincoln was a good president. Evidently, he was also a good manager.

Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Nancy F. Koehn, a Harvard Business School historian, summed up Lincoln’s management virtues as follows: an “ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards,” an “ability to shift gears during hard times—without giving up his ultimate goal,” general forbearance, frequent trips outside the office to stay abreast of facts on the ground, and a willingness to share success.

Peter Drucker likewise admired Lincoln and drew management lessons from him. One example Drucker liked to cite was Lincoln’s management of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was winning victories on the battlefield but reportedly knocking back a bit too much booze. “If I knew his brand,” Lincoln responded, “I’d send a barrel or so to some other generals.” The lesson here, as we’ve mentioned before, is that all subordinates have their weaknesses, but great managers build upon people’s strengths.

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

Another managerial insight that Drucker linked to Lincoln is also one we’ve explored before: Don’t work with your friends.

In the Oval Office, Drucker noted, pals of the president can cause particular trouble. “No one can trust ‘friends of the president,’” Drucker warned in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “They are always tempted to abuse their positions as a friend and the power that goes with it.”

If you’re forced in a pinch to hire a friend, then there’s only one thing to do: cease to treat that person as such. That’s how Lincoln dealt with Edwin M. Stanton. As Drucker explained, “Lincoln . . . only became an effective chief executive after he had changed from close personal relations—for example, with Stanton, his Secretary of War—to aloofness and distance.”

What do you think is the most important management lesson Abraham Lincoln provides?