3 Ways to Lead Like Lincoln

August 15, 2016
Mike Stallard

It’s fashionable in the media and politics today to be quick to speak, to dominate conversations and be self-righteous. We see this frequently in movies and television shows too. These attributes are thought to be signs of intelligence, assertiveness and conviction. Although they may be effective at gaining television ratings and press attention, they are counterproductive when it comes to communicating, connecting with others and leading effectively.

One of history’s greatest leaders and communicators was President Abraham Lincoln who led our country through the particularly divisive time of the Civil War. He was known as a patient, careful listener who was slow to speak and slow to become angry, wisdom he may have picked up from reading the Bible (see James 1:19). These attributes contributed to his reputation for being thoughtful, and for possessing wisdom and good judgment. They also helped him develop a strong network of supporters.

Several historians have described a recurring pattern of Lincoln converting political rivals and those who were turned off by his lack of education and awkward physical appearance into avid supporters. According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, some even came to love him as a dear friend.

Consider A.K. McClure, an important senator from Pennsylvania who Lincoln first met when McClure came to visit the president-elect over a contentious matter related to an appointment on Lincoln’s cabinet. When McClure first laid eyes on Lincoln, the senator’s heart sank to think the “gaunt, ungainly, ill clad and [homely]” prairie lawyer from Illinois would soon become America’s next president. But after a mere half hour conversation with Lincoln, McClure completely changed his mind.  “I learned not only to respect, but, indeed, to reverence the man,” wrote Senator McClure.

In addition to being a good listener, Lincoln also had a reputation for being slow to express anger. On one famous occasion, when Lincoln was frustrated with General George Meade for allowing Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his troops to escape when cornered, Lincoln penned an angry letter to his general.  Following Lincoln’s death, the letter was discovered in an envelope on which Lincoln had written “never sent.”

We would all be wise to follow Lincoln’s example.  Here are three practices to help you lead like Lincoln.

1. Listen Twice as Much as You Talk

It’s been said that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is so that we can listen twice as much as we talk. As silly as that may sound, neuroscience is proving the wisdom of the saying. To make people feel psychologically safe, get them to talk and, as they do, listen carefully to what they have to say. When people talk, it engages the cortex region of the brain where our rational thoughts are processed. At the same time, it quiets the amygdala region where we process emotions and where we are more likely to make rash rather than rational decisions. By getting people to talk, you will be quieting their fears and engaging their powers of rational thought. Research has also shown that people tend to like others who listen more than talk.

2. Pause Before You Speak

Let people finish speaking before you jump in.  It’s one thing to start in while the other person is still talking but beware of hearing a pause and taking that as the green light to speak up. It may be just that – a pause. Feeling cut off when you are in the midst of expressing an idea or opinion can lead to feeling frustrated. Sometimes we are so anxious to voice the next thing we want to say that we stop actively listening and that is disconnecting behavior too. Part of being “slow to speak” then is assessing what the right moment is.

3. Reflect Before Offering an Improvement

When someone presents an idea, suggestion, opinion or plan, author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith recommends taking time to reflect before offering a suggestion to improve it. Many people are in the habit of quickly adding their better idea by saying “but” or “however.” Habitually doing this undermines connection, commitment and engagement. As Goldsmith points out, people implement their own ideas with greater enthusiasm and energy, so consider whether your enhancement truly matters before offering it.

By being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (or offer improvements) you will be more likely to maintain connection with others. As Abraham Lincoln showed, you may even convert skeptics and rivals into supporters. Now that’s real leadership.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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