HBR: Abe Lincoln's Leadership Lessons for President Obama

Last Updated Apr 9, 2009 9:50 AM EDT

President Obama has cited historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, as one of the essential books on leadership he has taken to the White House.

So Harvard Business Review editor Diane Coutu recently interviewed Kearns Goodwin to discuss what Lincoln and a number of other presidents could teach the new president. Be sure to read this great interview, but here are some takeaways to ponder.

  • "Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That's an important insight whether you're the leader of a country or the CEO of a company."
  • "You want to create a reservoir of good feeling, and that involves not only acknowledging your errors but even shouldering the blame for the failures of some of your subordinates. Again and again, Lincoln took responsibility for what he did, and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others, and so people became very loyal to him."
  • "As a leader you need to know how to relax so that you can replenish your energies for the struggles facing you tomorrow. Lincoln went to the theater about a hundred times while he was in Washington. And although he suffered from a certain melancholy, he had a tremendous sense of humor and would entertain people long into the night with his stories. Franklin Roosevelt was the same way."
The Obama Lessons
Kearns Goodwin shows us how Lincoln may have influenced Obama's leadership style. But what can executives learn from Obama's performance in the White House so far? And what mistakes has he made that can be lessons as well?
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.