Abraham Lincoln is one of history’s most admired leaders. There’s no better rendering of his leadership approach than historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005.)
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Goodwin chronicles Lincoln’s early life and his surprising rise to the top of the political world. However, Goodwin’s focus is on Lincoln’s presidency.
President Barack Obama, who never shies away from comparisons to Lincoln, was so impressed with the book that he famously created his own “team of rivals”—a cabinet with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Tom Vilsack.
Lincoln was a genius for putting his political foes in his cabinet
After Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he knew that people doubted his ability. The country couldn’t be in worse straits. Nonetheless, he was determined to bring together a team of the absolute best people, lead the nation through the Civil War, and put an end to slavery.
And he did precisely that—no matter that those people held very different views or even disliked him personally. Three of Lincoln’s prominent cabinet members were better-known political foes who had campaigned against him in the 1860 election: Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (he never stopped scheming politically against Lincoln,) and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Contrasting his three rivals, Lincoln had served only briefly in elected office—and he had steered clear of committing himself on slavery apart from asserting that America could not persist under the circumstances.
Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of power inherent in the presidency, an unparalleled ability to keep his governing coalition intact, a tough-minded appreciation of the need to protect his presidential prerogatives, and a masterful sense of timing.
Goodwin explains how Lincoln won people over and mobilized them in the face of their disparate abilities, personalities, and motivations. Lincoln created the micro-coalitions necessary to pursue his overall strategy.
Having risen to power with fewer privileges than any of his rivals, Lincoln was more accustomed to rely upon himself to shape events. … Seward, Chase, Bates—they were indeed strong men. But in the end, it was the prairie lawyer from Springfield who would emerge as the strongest of them all.
Conflict and inclusion of others’ perspectives can make the sum greater than the parts
Lincoln’s unusual combination of forgiving human spirit and sharp political instincts converted his enemies into (mostly) loyal friends and advisers.
Team of Rivals emphasizes Lincoln’s tactics and small, incremental decisions in aid of his larger purpose. Lincoln understood that the leader’s fundamental responsibility is to procure the support needed to unleash ideas and move them forward.
Goodwin captures Lincoln’s vulnerabilities, patience, intelligence, and fantastic will. Goodwin writes, “Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.” A good leader takes the time to understand all sides of the issue and embrace alternative perspectives.
Lincoln’s mastery of men molded the most significant presidency in the nation’s history
To Goodwin, Lincoln was a political genius who picked the talent he needed, welcomed dissent, listened to his opponents, sought common ground, and piloted tough choices.
“Once a president gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history.” Lincoln understood that leadership isn’t about being right, but doing the right thing. This is particularly obvious in how Goodwin describes Lincoln’s determined course of action on slavery.
Team of Rivals states that Lincoln was not an abolitionist by any means, but it’s clear that, in his heart, he was against slavery. After all, slavery was protected by the constitution. But Lincoln gained a better understanding and insight as the years went by. “Life was to him a school.”
Lincoln agreed with the abolitionists that slavery was “a moral, a social and a political wrong,” his plan to free the slaves divided his cabinet. He had always made it clear that preserving the Union trumped all other goals. He became increasingly aware of the need for the Union to embrace the end of the institution of slavery without creating further discord within his own administration and in a fractured state.
Lincoln’s political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception and resolution at every juncture.
For months, Lincoln let his cabinet deliberate about if—and when—slavery should be abolished. In the end, he conclusively made up his mind to issue his historic Emancipation Proclamation. He gathered his cabinet and told them that he no longer needed their inputs on the pivotal issue—but he would listen to their ideas about how best to implement his decision and its timing. When one cabinet member urged Lincoln to wait for a triumph on the field to issue the proclamation, Lincoln took his counsel.
The desultory talk abruptly ended when Lincoln took the floor and announced he had called them together in order to read the preliminary draft of an emancipation proclamation. He understood the ‘differences in the Cabinet on the slavery question’ and welcomed their suggestions after they heard what he had to say; but he wanted them to know that he ‘had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice.’ … His draft proclamation set January 1, 1863, little more than five months away, as the date on which all slaves within states still in rebellion against the Union would be declared free, ‘thenceforward, and forever.’ … The proclamation was shocking in scope. In a single stroke, it superseded legislation on slavery and property rights that had guided policy in eleven states for nearly three quarters of a century. … The cabinet listened in silence … The members were startled by the boldness of Lincoln’s proclamation.
‘Team of Rivals’ is one of the great leadership books
Goodwin’s chunky (750+ pages plus references) book is a serious commitment. The first third of the book is bogged down by particulars of the lives of Lincoln and his three “rivals” in local and regional politics. But these sections are worth plodding through because the backstories paint a richer picture of the personalities, their intentions and motivations, and how they evolved over time.
All four studied law, became distinguished orators, entered politics, and opposed the spread of slavery. Their upward climb was one followed by many thousands who left the small towns of their birth to seek opportunity and the adventure in the rapidly growing cities of a dynamic, expanding America.
Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself. Lincoln’s barren childhood, his lack of schooling, his relationships with male friends, his complicated marriage, the nature of his ambition, and his ruminations about death can be analyzed more clearly when he is placed side by side with his three contemporaries.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called Lincoln, “so great he overshadows all other national heroes.” In the closing pages of Team of Rivals, Goodwin quotes Tolstoy (mentioned by Count S. Stakelberg per New York World on February 7, 1909):
Lincoln’s supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. … We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.
Recommendation: ‘Team of Rivals’ is a Necessary Read
Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) is a fascinating account of how President Abraham Lincoln held the Union together through the civil war, partially by bringing his political rivals into his cabinet and persuading them to work together. Particularly poignant is Goodwin’s characterization of Lincoln as the stoic head of a family afflicted by death and depression.
What makes Team of Rivals such a rich experience is Goodwin’s powerful lessons on bridging differences of opinion and using diverse perspectives to lead more effectively. These themes on leadership are very relevant outside the historical context.