Thinking Like Lincoln: Learning From a Legend

Thinking Like Lincoln: Learning From a Legend

All quotes in this discussion come from the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Buy this book here.


Abraham Lincoln is arguably among the most well-known men in American history. The 16th President of the United States, Lincoln presided during the American Civil War, a time where democracy was on the brink of destruction. He led the Union to victory after a grueling four years, but also spearheaded the biggest contribution in America history; the emancipation of slavery. Only a man with the political savviness of Lincoln could get such a controversial bill through Congress. Most of the men who knew Lincoln personally knew they were in the company of a legend. In this article we will look at the characteristics of Lincoln and how you can apply them to your life. 

We’ll look to answer the questions – How did he accomplish so much, so fast, against  overwhelming odds? How did a boy who grew up on the plains of the frontier, rise up to become one of the greatest men who have lived?

Since his death in 1865, Lincoln has been the subject of countless books. One book stands near the top of the list. In “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin examines Lincoln through a unique lens, studying him along side the men who unsuccessfully challenged him in the 1860 Republican Party nomination. These three men; William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, would put aside their ego’s and differences to serve with Lincoln for the greater good of the country. Goodwin does a brilliant job of assessing Lincoln as well, through a mind-boggling array of first hand accounts. We see how he weathered the storm of war, simultaneously holding the country together while also planting the seeds for the America we’ve come to know today. In this discussion, we will use quotes from Goodwin’s book to piece together the defining characteristics of Lincoln and examine how you can apply them to your own life.  

Speak Well, Speak Often and They Will Come

Lincoln was awkward in appearance, but that never subtracted from his ability to master a room full of people. One thing Lincoln did exceptionally well was tell stories. As a boy, he’d hang around his father and listen to him tell stories to friends. Then as a young lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln traveled throughout the state for weeks at a time, working a true “circuit court.” Lincoln and his fellow lawyers were a close knit group, often staying up late into the night enjoying good conversation. According to Goodwin, Lincoln was,

“Invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories nor his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chance to hear a master storyteller.”

By the time Lincoln ran for President, he was a master conversationalist. His speeches, especially the Gettysburg Address, are still talked about today.

One of the keys to success is communication. A man must be strong in the presence of others. The ability to tell a story, to captivate an audience, is an unquestioned skill of the great men of history. Those who wilt away in the presence of others set themselves up for an average life. Lincoln forged confidence through his storytelling. True leaders win the hearts and minds of the masses, and do so through strong rhetoric and confidence in their actions. 

Humor Matters

A sense of humor is equally important, a skill Lincoln developed in his early years and went on to master when he became President. He had to drawn upon time and again during the grim days of the Civil War. Lincoln had a knack for lightening the mood, almost being too comical during serious moments, sometimes upsetting members of his cabinet. You might have heard of Lincoln’s infamous “melancholy,” the sadness that he wore on his face. This was undoubtedly true, but Lincoln dealt with immense personal loss through his life, yet always found a way to pick up the pieces and persevere. He never stayed in a rut too long. Lincoln “possessed a life-affirming humor and a profound resilience that lightened his despair and fortified his will.”

A sense of humor should be a staple characteristic in your repertoire. Humor does wonders with women, but it also helps to break down barriers with new acquaintances, forming friendships or business relationships. Lincoln would tell funny stories to his cabinet members to help lighten the mood during the savagery of the Civil War. He had an intuition that told him when his humor would help take the edge off the situation. Humor is versatile and some people are undoubtedly more humorous than others, but it’s a skill that can be practiced and improved. When times are hard, humor is a tool to help carry you.

Independent Thought

Lincoln was a man who listened to the opinions of others, carefully weighing the thoughts of his cabinet members. He always sought to understand both sides of a point of view. But in the end, he always made his own decision. He was never afraid to go against the consensus, but rarely had to because he developed the ability to know when the people were ready for something. 

By the time Lincoln entered the White House, he was a seasoned politician. In Team of Rivals, political boss Thurlow Weed traveled to Illinois to meet with Lincoln shortly after he won the nomination. After the meeting, Weed declared:

“So much good sense, such intuitive knowledge of human nature, and such familiarity with the virtues and infirmities of politicians, that I became impressed very favorably with his fitness for the duties which he was not unlikely to be called upon to discharge.”

On another occasion, Weed remarked:

“His mind is at once philosophical and practical. He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself.”

As President, Lincoln was a master communicator, both patient and decisive when making decisions, especially those rare decisions that went against his advisers wishes. He rarely lost his temper and was always respectful and calm, even when faced with shady antics from both the opposition and his own Party. Many were skeptical that Lincoln was the right choice for President, including a New York Tribune correspondent named Henry Villard. As Goodwin writes, Villard believed “Lincoln’s storytelling prowess “Helped many times to heal wounded feelings and mitigate disappointments.” He also began to see Lincoln for what he was, and not through a political lens. Villard summed up Lincoln beautifully:

“He is the very embodiment of good temper and affability. They will all concede that he has a kind word, an encouraging smile, a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few, if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed with his general disposition.”

Always think through big decisions and come to your own conclusion. It is fine to carefully weight the expertise of others, but you should never be persuaded into doing anything you don’t believe in wholeheartedly. Often times, even those we consider friends will give us bad advice. They persuade us to do things we’d never do on our own accord, due to jealousy, misunderstanding, risk aversion, and scorn for our success. Make your own decisions and stick to them!

Readers are Leaders

As a child, Lincoln became obsessed with reading, a familiar indicator of future success. Because he was needed on his father’s farm, he had barely any formal schooling. He seemed condemned to a life of hard labor on the frontier, but his grit and determination carried him. Lincoln was the definition of a self-made man.

According to Goodwin, “Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past.” He unlocked a world he never knew existed and it set in motion all that was to come in his life. Books were not easy to acquire for Lincoln, but he was undeterred. The books he did acquire, he would read again and again. “Everywhere he went, Lincoln carried a book with him” said Goodwin. His father wasn’t too fond of this habit, demanding the young boy’s strict attention to farm work. When he embarked on a law career, he was as determined as ever to succeed. He spent endless hours studying and memorizing the content of his law books. No teachers, no mentors, no privilege. Lincoln was a man who came from nothing, but through sheer determination he succeeded. He didn’t resign himself to a life of average. Goodwin writes:

“What Lincoln lacked in preparation and guidance, he made up for with his daunting concentration, phenomenal memory, acute reasoning faculties, and interpretive penetration.” Lincoln himself said, “the books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places..Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any one thing.”

There is a story from Lincoln’s childhood that speaks to his devotion to reading. He had borrowed a book, and while in his possession, the book had been ruined. To pay back the owner, Lincoln labored for two days on the man’s farm! It’s simple; to go far in life, no matter your undertaking, you MUST be well-read. It is the best habit you could ever acquire.

Always Believe in Yourself 

Lincoln was quite self-assured but he was never a braggart. He did not let ego cloud his judgement or decision making. Lincoln certainly got angry on occasion (when pushed to his absolute limits), but he treated most everyone with respect and made them feel his equal. Nobody ever complained that Lincoln was power hungry. Goodwin quotes historian Douglas Wilson who writes of Lincoln, “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential.” Because of his high intelligence combined with his gift of humor and storytelling, Lincoln left a deep impression on all those he met. Dealing with the horrors of the Civil War and a deeply divided political landscape, Lincoln also had to balance the strong personalities of his cabinet members, while also appeasing his wife and keeping a keen understanding of public sentiment. Goodwin writes:

“Lincoln’s ability to retain his emotional balance in such difficult situations was rooted in an acute self-awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.”

Nothing sums up Lincoln’s confidence more than an exchange he had with General Ulysses S. Grant towards the end of the war. According to Goodwin, “Grant asked, ‘Mr. President, did you at any time doubt the final success of the cause?’ ‘Never for a moment,’ Lincoln replied.” Even in knowing it was only a matter of time before victory would be complete, Lincoln displayed no outward signs of pride or vanity. He did not berate the South for seceding from the Union, or seek revenge on Confederate leaders. He always put the interests of the country first, remaining his same Stoic self, the same man he had been during the preceding war years.

When Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, he lingered in an unconscious state for 9 hours before finally succumbing to his head wound. He was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, was by Lincoln’s side and reflected beautifully on the loss, saying:

 “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Final Thoughts

It’s been over 150 years since Lincoln’s death, but his memory lives on today more than ever. He is a symbol of America, a man who overcame adversity to lead America during a deeply troubled time, overcoming extreme division and horror brought on by the Civil War. To sum up this article, here are Lincoln’s greatest qualities:

  • Storyteller
  • Sense of humor
  • Independent Thinker
  • Self-confident
  • Voracious reader

Lincoln wasn’t the first or last great leader that embodied these character traits. There is nothing unique here, nothing you haven’t seen before. You too have the ability to master these characteristics. Humor and storytelling come from practice, and often go hand and hand. People love to be around someone who can entertain them and make them laugh. Independent thought and self-confidence also strongly correlate to one another. Those people who don’t waver when faced with adversity has a strong belief in their convictions. And finally, reading, the common link to all success stories, is something each one of you can get started on today.

Lincoln was a man of the people, because he was one of them. He never had an inflated sense of self-worth. He never believed himself to be better than anyone. What he did do, however, was have an ironclad belief in himself and his abilities. He believed he was the most capable man the country had at a time when such a leader was so desperately needed. One could argue Lincoln was a product of the times, that pure luck put him in the perfect time and place to do great things. But with all men of history, those people born into chaotic times must still rise to the occasion.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of the modern era, had a remarkable fondness for Lincoln. In 1909, Tolstoy gave his take on Lincoln:

“The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years…He was bigger than his country, bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”

Lincoln is a man to emulate, and thanks to the wealth of knowledge we have, you can do just that. There was no secret to his success, just a savage work ethic and belief in self. You must take action. You can do great things just the same as anyone else. We all have the same hours in the day. Work hard, stay focused, and always push ahead. 

All quotes in this discussion come from the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Buy this book here.

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