5 Great Leadership Lessons From the Movie Lincoln

If you haven’t seen the movie Lincoln yet, stop whatever you’re doing, go to the nearest theater and watch it right now.

So far, I’ve sat through all 2 hours and 29 minutes twice and wholeheartedly think it’s one of the very best leadership tutorials in the history of the universe.

Here are five key lessons I came away with. Please feel free chime in with a comment below if you have anything you’d like to add.

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  1. Diversity works. The movie is based on a book called Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book’s central point is that instead of doing the normal political thing and assembling a cabinet of people just like himself, Abraham Lincoln went out of his way to include a diverse group of friends and foes. That diversity helped lead to better debates and better decisions — and may just have saved the country for future generations.
  2. Patience and perseverance pay. Lincoln had two primary strategic goals: (1) ending slavery; and, (2) ending the war. Over and over, he was tempted to take shortcuts that would have accomplished one goal but would have left the other in peril. He refused to compromise on either front, weathered the storm, and ultimately achieved what most thought was impossible.
  3. They didn’t call him Honest Abe for nothing. Eschewing the custom of the time, Lincoln refused to dole out cash in exchange for votes on the 13th Amendment. Instead, he paid personal visits to key figures from both parties — hitting ‘em in the hearts with personal pleas for justice rather than filling up their pockets with cold hard cash.
  4. Have a humble heart. Lincoln personified the Level Five Leader immortalized in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. He was humble to the core, listened to others and put the good of the country above his own personal interests.
  5. Keep it short. Lincoln kept his words few. The Gettysburg Address — perhaps the most famous speech of all time — was a mere 246 words and took two minutes to deliver. As Abe himself once said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool then to speak out and remove all doubt.”

I think I’ll heed those words and shut up right now.

This was originally published on Manpower Group’s Employment Blawg.

Mark Toth has served as Manpower Group North America's Chief Legal Officer since 2000. He also serves on the company’s Global Leadership Team, Global Legal Lead Team and North American Lead Team. Mark is recognized as an expert on legal issues affecting the U.S. workplace and is frequently quoted in media from The Wall Street Journal to 60 Minutes. He is also a past Chair of the American Staffing Association and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources. Contact him at mark.toth@manpowergroup.com.


10 Comments on “5 Great Leadership Lessons From the Movie Lincoln

  1. Agree with all the points however I must point out that some of his staff did handout patronage jobs in exchange for the votes BUT he absolutely forbade the distribution of cash, which was a huge break from the times.

  2. As you have pointed out, Lincoln was a great leader for many reasons. I’m inspired by Lincoln and you. Will run not walk to the nearest movie theater.

  3. Lincoln had two primary strategic goals: (1) ending slavery; and, (2) ending the war.??? “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, ….” Lincoln. I don’t think ending slavery was his primary goal – saving the Union was his primary goal.

  4. I just recently read a great leadership book, “Green Beans & Ice Cream” by President of the Bill Sims Company, Bill Sims, Jr., and absolutely love the way that the book describes the things that a good leader should be doing to run a successful business, and how to get more productivity out of employees by using positive reinforcement. Another interesting point that the book makes about a good leader is that paying employees off, is not the key either- this reminds me a lot of how Hones Abe is described in this post. What a fantastic President and leader he was!


  5. Very interesting post and is we look at what neuroscience is telling us about how leadership works its all pretty much there. sometimes being a great leader is know how your brain works and leading from there.

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