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Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. (Off the Shelf).

by Donald T. Phillips

Warner Books – ISBN 0-446-39459-9 (Paperback)

Donald T. Phillips’ book, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive

Strategies for Tough Times, is an expertly detailed record of what he

believes were President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership qualities and

how today’s manager can apply those qualities to people and


Phillips relates vividly how he believes Lincoln understood the

precepts of leadership, while addressing sound management principles in

a well-organized, easy-to-follow comparison of Lincoln’s precepts

with current leadership skills.

The author writes that most of today’s leadership principles

are usually expressed abstractly when, in truth, there is a great need

for simple, concrete illustrations. Phillips believes that, by studying

Lincoln, a manager can get tangible examples from this widely recognized

leader. His hope, in writing this book, is that “present and future

leaders will be enlightened by the remarkable leadership genius of

Lincoln and then will use the knowledge to improve their own


Phillips also writes that today’s leaders should be interested

in Lincoln’s leadership style because, by modern standards,

“Lincoln’s accomplishments would be regarded as no less than a

miracle.” Faced with the insurmountable problem of holding an

entire nation together while organizing a new, more efficient

government, Lincoln seized upon the circumstances at hand and exercised

the full power of this office to create new limits of authority and

leadership for the presidency. The book, organized into four parts,

gives insight into dealing with people, building character, endeavoring

to accomplish goals, encouraging innovation, and mastering

communication. Each chapter relates problems faced by Lincoln at the

rime and how he effectively handled and solved them. Quotations taken

from letters and speeches written and given by Lincoln enforce the

principle presented in each chapter. Each chapter concludes with a list

of what the author has titled “Lincoln Principles,” which

summarize the chapter’s main points and encourages the reader to

put into practice what he or she just read.

Maintaining a Personal Touch

Part I, titled “People,” describes Lincoln’s

hands-on personal approach. He often left the White House to visit the

troops and others, and he tried to be accessible to the people as often

as possible. Unlike the stony images of photographs, Lincoln reportedly

could be affable and good tempered. He understood human nature, was

compassionate and caring, and delegated responsibility and authority to

subordinates. Recognizing that modern managers may complain that they

don’t have enough time to spend with their subordinates as did

Lincoln, Phillips encourages the reader to remember that Lincoln was

trying to win a war and unite the nation. He chides modern leaders by

remarking, “But then again, they’re not trying to win a war.

Or are they?”

Exhibiting an Exemplary Character

The traits of honesty and integrity, never acting out of vengeance or spite, having the courage to handle unjust criticism, and being the

master of paradox are addressed in Part II of the book, titled

“Character.” These chapters describe Lincoln’s ability to

be fair, trustworthy, sincere, straightforward, of sound moral

principles, and honest. The author states, “Trust, honesty, and

integrity are exceedingly important qualities because they so strongly

affect followers.” Phillips relates that genuine caring inspires

trust among subordinates and fosters innovative thinking and keeps

followers from being terrified by allowing them to be themselves. He

notes that “contemporary leaders should ‘pardon’ mistakes

as opposed to chewing out subordinates” and encourages readers to

emulate Lincoln in handling unjust criticism (by ignoring most of the

attacks if they are petty but fighting back if they are important enough

to make a difference). Phillips also believes that mastering paradox is

keeping one’s darker side u nder control, being consistent, making

no explanations to your enemies, taking risks, and exhibiting good

common sense.

Taking Charge by Letting Go

In Part III, titled “Endeavor,” Phillips describes

Lincoln’s leadership qualities of exercising a strong hand by being

decisive, leading by being led, setting goals and being result-oriented,

finding your own “Grant,” and encouraging innovation from

subordinates. The author suggests that readers, when making decisions,

must understand the facts, consider the various solutions and their

consequences, make sure that decisions are consistent with objectives,

and effectively communicate those decisions. He states, “As a

leader, you should always let your subordinates know that the honor will

be all theirs if they succeed, and the blame will be yours if they

fail.” He encourages the contemporary manager to adopt

Lincoln’s principles of choosing chief subordinates who crave

responsibility and take risks (that is, “finding your Grant”),

and inculcating the attitude that “there’s more than one way

to skin a cat,” rather than being consumed by methodology.

Communicating Simply and Directly

Mastering the art of public speaking, influencing people through

conversation, storytelling, and preaching a vision and continually

reaffirming it are the principles addressed in Part IV

(“Communication”) of the book. Here, Phillip’s list of

Lincoln Principles encourages readers to be “your

organization’s best stump-speaker, [and to] prepare yourself

thoroughly for public speaking engagements, remember that there will be

times when you should simply not speak, speak in simple and familiar

terms, without any pretension of superiority, and when effecting

renewal, call upon the past, relate it to the present, and then use them

both to provide a link to the future.”

Fitting Lessons from the Past to Today’s World

During the reading of this book, one question came to mind in

regard to Lincoln’s leadership style. Did Lincoln really possess

all of the leadership qualities purported, or has the author taken

strategies and lessons learned in modern-day seminars on leadership and

applied them to Lincoln’s actions and words? I would have to say

that it is a little of both. During the most difficult time in our

nation’s history, Lincoln accomplished the task of preserving the

nation as one United States. He indeed had to have been an effective

leader who possessed many of the qualities described by the author. In

that regard, Phillips has taken lessons from the past and shown

today’s managers how to apply them to the present.

I heartily recommend this book for reading by leaders as well as

those who want to learn how to lead. The lessons are fascinating and

inspiring, and readers certainly will benefit from the many insights and


Reviewed by Shirley A. Stephens

Shirley A. Stephens serves as the assistant chief of staff,

comptroller for the Marine Corps Reserve Support Command (MCRSC), Kansas

City, Missouri. She is responsible for the financial management support

for the administration and training of over 60,000 Reserve Marines

globally. She has been a civil service employee for 19 years, all with

the Marine Corps, and a member of the Kansas City Chapter for 3 years.

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