Leading During Chaos: Lessons from Lincoln

By Linda Henman, Ph.D.

The time during Abraham Lincoln leadership commemorates a dark time in our nation’s history—a time characterized by chaos, change, and strife among those who shared a common nation, mutual friendships, and joint ancestry.

Decades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861 when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back.

Due largely to the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the nation recovered and prospered. His ability to lead during chaos molded the nation and set the gold standard for leadership. But it wasn’t easy.

Lincoln had taken office five weeks before the shot that started the Civil War. At that time he assembled a cabinet of talented men—a team of rivals. By marshalling the talents of these men, Lincoln preserved the Union and won the war.

The cabinet consisted of strong men—all virtuosos in their own right—but in this case, the prairie lawyer from Illinois was the most notable virtuoso of them all. Here are Lincoln’s lessons for leading during chaos: 

  • Lincoln put a premium on collaboration, but he wasn’t reluctant to encourage confrontation to get it. The members of his cabinet clashed violently and continuously, but together they emerged victorious.
  • Lincoln proved himself an extraordinary judge of talent. He didn’t let his personal feelings for his cabinet members or his past experiences during the campaign cloud his judgment. Instead, he sought and obtained the best thinking available.
  • Few leaders invite conflict, even when it could result in the best outcome. Lincoln put aside his own emotions and required his team to do the same. They may not have liked each other, and certainly they didn’t share common opinions, but together they shaped history with their interactions.

Leading during the best of times presents challenges. Chaos complicates, confounds, and confuses. But it does offer an opportunity to influence history—yours and your organizations.

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