Book Review: Lincoln On Leadership

Lincoln On Leadership: Executive Strategies For Tough Times, by Donald t. Phillips

I snagged this book, along with a few other ones, on a recent trip to a Gig Harbor independent bookstore that led at least one of my friends to joke that I single-handedly helped increase book sales for the first time in almost a decade. This particular book is the sort of material that reminds me of my own studies for my first master’s degree, in Engineering Management, mixed with my longtime interest in Lincoln studies [1] and political and military history. As many of my friends would say, this is a Nathanish book. More than that, though, this book has a larger importance as well, given the fact that before one even gets to reading the book there are pages of praise from various political and cultural leaders, and a comment from the author that at the time this book was written in the early 1990’s, there was a dearth of books about the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. It is likely that the success of this book alerted others to the field, and led to a proliferation of books written about the subject as well as about every other subject even remotely relating to Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, this book remains a good book despite being almost twenty-five years old, largely because it meets the needs of an executive who would want to apply the techniques of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.

In terms of its contents, this book is straightforward and concise in the best way. At under 200 pages, the book contains fifteen chapters in four parts. The first part deals with people and has chapters on management by wandering around (MBWA as it is known in management jargon), building strong alliances, and using persuasion rather than coercion. The second part, which looks at character, has chapters on honesty and integrity, the avoidance of acting out of vengeance or spite, developing the courage to handle unjust criticism, as Abraham Lincoln most surely did, and being a master of paradox. The third part, dealing with endeavoring, has chapters on being decisive, leading by allowing great flexibility to subordinates, setting goals and being results-oriented, being persistent in searching for able subordinates, and encouraging innovation. The fourth and final part deals with communication, including chapters on public speaking, influencing people through storytelling and conversation, and continually preaching a consistent vision. The book has an adequate notes section, surprising for a book like this designed for a mass market among a target audience not known for having the patience to read books even as concise as this one, The chapters themselves begin with a useful Lincoln quote, manage to be filled far more with Lincoln’s words than typical management jargon, and end with sound principles taken from Lincoln’s experience, often in his own words. If one is interested in leadership theory and is willing to take lessons from our greatest president, this is a wonderful book.

Nevertheless, reading this book gave me a flashback to my own experience as a graduate student, which was somewhat melancholy. This is precisely the sort of book that is likely to be praised by many, read by more than a few, but consistently followed by very few. The reason for this is not hard to explain. None of the principles in this book are very complicated–most of them could be found by a reasonably curious person reading the Bible, or by someone who went to any competent graduate program in management of any kind that can be found throughout the Western world. None of the concepts of this book are particularly difficult to understand on an intellectual level, and there are many books that address the topics in great detail. Yet they, like any good practices, are hard to follow because they cut against various human tendencies that happen to be particularly heavy among leaders–laziness, pride, insecurity, authoritarian tendencies, poor listening skills, impatience, and the like. The adoption of the sound practices in this book do not require spending a bit more than an hour or two reading about them, but rather the difficult effort of practicing such behaviors despite their inconvenience and despite our inertial tendencies as human beings. Consider this book as wonderful reading material, but as self-help for executives, and likely no more beneficial on a practical level than other similarly skilled and eloquent appeals for personal change.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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