Legal Leadership Profile – Abraham Lincoln

Lawyers and law firm leaders can benefit greatly from studying the leadership qualities of Abraham Lincoln.   He was a great leader.  He was one of our greatest Presidents.   This post takes a look at examples of Abe Lincoln’s leadership qualities by taking a look at “Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies For Tough Times”, by Donald T. Phillips. The author discusses Lincoln’s leadership qualities. This book gives tangible examples of Lincoln’s performance as a leader. This gem of a book organizes the examination of Lincoln’s leadership around four broad areas: people, character, endeavor, and communication. Each of the four areas has several aspects. Overall, the book presents 15 leadership principles and lessons gleaned from the author’s careful examination of the life of Abraham Lincoln.

The author suggests [at page 7] that Lincoln’s chosen adult profession, lawyer, “prepared him for his future executive leadership position.”  Abe Lincoln saved the Union.  This feat makes study of his leadership qualities so important for students of leadership.  His accomplishment, by modern standards, according to the author, is no less than a miracle. “There can be no doubt that Lincoln is the greatest leader this country, and perhaps this world, has yet known.” After stating that, the author in concluding the Introduction adds “Lincoln is the leader who genuinely has something new to offer contemporary business and political leaders.”

My graduate program in organizational development psychology included coursework about leadership and influence processes.  A good way to study leadership is to study leaders.  That includes developing a leadership profile.  I did that with Abraham Lincoln.  What follows comes from my leadership profile about Abe Lincoln.  Regarding the important topic of leadership, the study of the life and work of Abraham Lincoln, including his years as a very successful attorney, merits careful attention.  Benefits will flow.  By keying in on and using his own words, this post provides you leadership qualities in 4 broad areas from the life and work of Abraham Lincoln : people, character, endeavor, and communication.


Lincoln Leadership Principles



1. Get out of the office and circulate among the troops – a leader must be visible, get out of the ivory tower, and be in touch with people; the best way to get information, according to Lincoln: perceive it firsthand; create commitment, collaboration, community; “It is important that the people know I come among them without fear” (16)

2. Build strong alliances – listen, pay attention, establish trust; getting to know subordinates can overcome mountains of personal differences and hard feelings; successful alliances, whether with subordinates or other organizations, put leader in a position of strength and power; “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (36)

3. Persuade rather than coerce – strive to work with and through people to achieve objectives; be a persuader-delegator in substance, style, and philosophy; make requests, suggestions, recommendations instead of issuing orders; nurture and guide as parents do children; “It is an old and true maxim, that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall. So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” (39)



4. Honesty and integrity are the best policies – “Honest Abe” – the most glorified part of the Lincoln “myth”; the architecture of leadership falls apart without honesty and integrity-the keystone that holds an organization together; fired first secretary of war for shady dealings in defense contracts; truth is the common denominator for all interactions, among any group, and with people of varying personalities; “Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.” (54)

5. Never act out of vengeance or spite – followers respond better and more easily led by leader who consistently displays kindness and empathy than one who is vindictive or has animosity; granted more pardons than any president before him and more since; being compassionate and kind makes fewer enemies and creates more supporters to aid corporate mission; “With malice toward none; with charity for all . . . “ (62)

6. Have the courage to handle unjust criticism – “Grace under pressure”; was slandered, libeled, and hated perhaps more intensely than any man to run for presidency; called a “third rate country lawyer who once split rails and not splits the union”, among other things; dealt with severe and unjust criticism by ignoring it, humor, letters of refutation, amusement; “When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him. . . but when the misrepresentation becomes gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.” (72)

7. Be a master of paradox – relates to charisma; numerous paradoxes: strikingly flexible, “My policy is to have no policy” (78) but a model of consistency “not best to swap horses when crossing streams” (78); relates to self-management: leaders must capitalize on own strengths, recognize shortcomings and compensate for them, and manage their “dark side”; vented in private; address important issues with clear frame of mind; avoided conflict whenever possible; did not quarrel over insignificant matters; “No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.” (82); Mastering the paradox is nothing more than having good common sense.


8. Exercise a strong hand – be decisive – freed the slaves and preserved the federal union and also expanded the limits of presidential power . . . “What did Lincoln not do? . . . he was so decisive that he left virtually no stone unturned.” (88); enacted conscription, suspended

writ of habeas corpus; approved and submitted the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865, 3 months before his death; used a classic decision making sequence that began with understanding of problem, consideration of alternatives, after weighing decision against personal policy objectives, would effectively communicate decision and implement it; best examples are: not allowing the South to secede from Union and abolishing slavery; “. . . because of his extraordinary decisiveness, he was able to make policy, produce change, and win the war” (97); regarding his acceptance of the resignation of his then Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, who had threatened to quit several times, Lincoln wrote “Your resignation of the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, sent me yesterday, is accepted. Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity, I have nothing to unsay; and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation which it seems can not be overcome, or longer sustained, consistently with the public service.” (94).

9. Lead by being led – history shows that Lincoln made most crucial decisions while President; he led the way while giving the impression that he was following the lead of his subordinates; he directed others by implying, hinting, or suggesting; he facilitated the resolution of feuds between departments by getting all concerned in a closed room, and compelled them to stay until they made peace; he gave credit where credit was due and accepted responsibility when things went wrong; during the war, he publicly accepted responsibility for lost battles; he sent letters to his generals, particularly important were Grant and Sherman, praising them for good work and encouraging them for more of the same; on his last public address, after a Union victory, he stated “No part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine. To General Grant, his skillful officers, and brave men, all belongs.”(106); Lincoln’s chief objective was to allow his subordinates to say, “We accomplished this ourselves.”(106).

10. Set goals and be results oriented – “Leadership requires aggressive individuals – those who accept a take charge role”(109); Lincoln was a tireless worker, campaigner, and public speaker; Lincoln ran a general store, was a postmaster, a surveyor, a lawyer, and a politician; he learned from his failures; he established goals, specific and short term, so that his subordinates could focus with intent and immediacy; he was driven and results-oriented; Lincoln would fit into the mold of “reliable and tirelessly persistent”, shown by recent research; one of Lincoln’s favorite and often told anecdotes gets to this point “A man had a small bull terrier that could whip all the dogs of the neighborhood. The owner of a large dog which the terrier had whipped asked the owner of the terrier how it happened. . . .’That’, said the owner of the terrier, ‘is no mystery to me; your dog and other dogs get half through a fight before they are ready; now, my dog is always mad!”(112).

11. Keep searching until you find your Grant – Lincoln took charge in handling the problem of an insufficient, poorly trained, and poorly equipped army when he took office in 1861; Lincoln spent 2 ½ years searching for the right general who could bring victory and end the war and he found that person in General Ulysses S. Grant; Lincoln demanded action, and promoted the generals who achieved results; leaders can not do everything on their own – they must have people below them who will do what is necessary to insure success; Lincoln’s direction of the war effort to final victory is summed up in a short directive given to Grant who had communicated to Lincoln that if the effort got pressed, Grant thought Lee would surrender – “Let the thing be pressed”(135); Grant did, and final victory came 4 days later.

12. Encourage innovation – Lincoln effected change by creating an atmosphere that fostered innovative techniques; he surrounded himself with persons from whom he could learn something, whether they were antagonists or not; Lincoln is the only president to have secured a patent – a method for making boats more buoyant; he made himself aware of new technology and implemented advances before the South could, egs. new rifles and bullets, used hot air “spy” balloons, flame throwers; Lincoln was “high tech”; he was not just an instrument for change, but was a catalyst; Lincoln said “the nation’s patent system. . . . secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of useful thing.”(140)



13. Master the art of public speaking – Reagan has been labeled the “Great Communicator”, but Lincoln dwarfs Reagan; Lincoln was a most eloquent public speaker, speech writer, and extemporaneous speakers of US history; his voice, body language, and physical presence made him a powerful speaker; Lincoln was a master of preparation, often spending hours and hours researching the issues and writing and re-writing speeches; he had a gift for communicating his own feelings and emotion; he was also an intelligent communicator, careful about what he said and he thought before he spoke; Lincoln was simple, straightforward, consistent, and clear in his communication; today’s leaders would do well, according to the author Phillips, to embody his approach, especially when sending complex messages because “an essential factor in leadership is the capacity to influence and organize meaning for members of the organization. . . Communication creates meaning for people”;”However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech.”(145) from notes for a lecture to young lawyers, 1850.

14. Influence people through conversation and storytelling – Lincoln was a great writer, a great speaker, and a great storyteller; he could talk to anyone and one on one, he could convince anybody of just about anything; his humor was a major component of his ability to persuade people; stories spread loyalty, commitment, and enthusiasm, according to recent leadership scholarship; he used this skill for purpose rather than amusement; Lincoln very liberally used stories and anecdotes, colloquial expressions, symbols and imagery to influence and persuade; important in business organizations, private conversation is much more important than public speaking; he said “I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense. . . . I am not simply a story-teller, but story-telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress”(159)

15. Preach a vision and continually reaffirm it – leaders have to preach the vision of the organization by stating it clearly and concisely and care about it passionately; a vision is a concise statement or picture of where the organization and its people are heading and why they should be proud of it; the leader must continually repeat and renew the vision so its meaning and import will not diminish; leaders must also provide a rejuvenating process; this process draws upon the past, relates to the present, and both provide a link to the future; The Gettysburg Address, one of the most important speeches in American history, and which lasted all of about two minutes, provides the perfect example:

[The past]

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

[The Present]

Now we are engaged in a great civil war; testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here, It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –

[The Future]

and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (167-168).

Professional Development Activity for Lawyers and Law Firm Leaders – Leadership Profile

Identify a public or historical figure, and develop a leadership profile.  Do this in a journal.  Use credible sources for your information such as biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies.  Think about the person’s successes or failures as a leader.  That a person appears in history books, appears on coins or currency, coached teams to championships, explored or made discoveries, or other such guideposts, does signify that person’s life and work means something in a broad way in terms of leadership.  Organize concepts and ideas and use quotes and examples to guide you in your study.  Think about specific traits, skills, behaviors, and influence processes used by the leader.  When pursued earnestly and with honesty, this simple activity can help your personal development and growth as a professional.  Edit, review, revise, and continually study your work.  You can be your own leadership guide.  An organizational development specialist can help you, too.

You should have noticed that his own words define and describe the leadership qualities of Abraham Lincoln.  That occurred for a reason.  Words count in the business and practice of law.  In addition to the book by Phillips, I also recommend Lincoln:  The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan.  The opening two pages of his work bear the title “Reading Lincoln’s Words”.  Kaplan authored this work in 2008.  The passage of time has not affected his observations.  The following selected comments in that opening section are about Lincoln, language, and leadership, and will close this post.

“For Lincoln, words mattered immensely.  His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high value of their power mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today.  Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness.  Lincoln was born into a national culture in which language was the most widely available key to individual growth and achievement.  It dominated public discourse.  No TVs, DVDs, computers, movie screens, radios, or electricity, and no sound-bites. Language mattered because it was useful for practical communication and for learning and because it could shape and direct people’s feelings and thoughts in a culture in which spoken or written words had no rival.  In Lincoln’s case it also mattered immensely because it was the tool by which he explored and defined himself.  The tool, the toolmaker, and the tool user became inseparably one.  He became what his language made him.  From an early age, he began his journey into self-willed literacy, then into skill, and eventually into genius as an artist with words.  Lincoln was also the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders.  The ability and commitment to use language honestly and consistently have largely disappeared from our political discourse.  Some, such as Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, have had superior speech-writers.  But the challenge of a president himself struggling to find the conjunction between the right words and honest expression, a use of language that respects, intellect, truth, and sincerity, has largely been abandoned.”

Source:  Phillips, D.T.. Lincoln On Leadership: Executive Strategies For Tough Times (1993).

Thank you.  Thank you very much for visiting Psycholawlogy,  Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about this blog post.  Also, I would be interested in your thoughts or ideas for future posts on the topic of legal leadership, or any other subject.  Contact me through my website at Adlitem Solutions,, or email me directly at  Please visit again soon.  Thanks again.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions.  Adlitem Solutions provides organization development services for professional services and law firms in three broad areas:  people, projects, and practices.  Adlitem Solutions leverages 20+ years of law practice experience and knowledge and applied behavioral science and can help you with your professional and leadership development challenges and opportunities.

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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