Lessons From the Past: What Did Abe Lincoln Know about Running a Business?

Abraham Lincoln rests in our national memory as one of the greatest leaders the United States has ever seen. His image is iconic, and his seemingly impossible reunification of a broken country transformed him into more of a cultural legend than a mere person.
But at the start of his presidency, few believed Lincoln had any capacity for greatness. He had no experience in the military or in executive leadership. Cabinet members considered him a figurehead to be controlled, and few respected or supported him. Further, the odds he faced seemed insurmountable: by the Lincoln time took office, several southern states had already seceded from the Union. It was rumored that Confederate sympathizers planned to kill him during his inauguration and take control of Washington, and though this did not happen, ten days later Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy.
In his bestselling book “Lincoln on Leadership,” author and leadership expert Donald T. Phillips chronicles the philosophies, principles, and daily habits of the fourteenth president, through which he proved his competency and saved the country from disarray and destruction. Whether you lead a large or small company, many of these principles can be applied to the daily challenges you face at work. Here we highlight just a few ideas that can improve your business and strengthen your confidence as a leader.

Be with Your People
According to his personal secretaries, about 75% of Lincoln’s time was spent meeting with all kinds of people. He kept his office door open and rarely turned away even the lowliest of visitors. His advisors and staff knew he was available for one on one meetings whenever they had problems or concerns. And “if people know they have easy access to their leader, they tend to view the leader in a more positive, trustworthy light” (Philips p. 18). Lincoln’s interactions were not just professional. He understood that informal conversation can be just as valuable, thus he spent many hours getting to know his staff personally, demonstrating his caring nature and showing interest in their lives outside of work.
With a mountain of responsibilities on your desk, it can be tempting to hole up in your office and leave others to their work. But this is a recipe for detached employees who do not respect you or appreciate your vision for the company. Take the extra time and be open to personal engagement. Show employees that you value them not just as workers, but as individuals. This will create a more productive and enjoyable workplace for everyone involved.

Go Straight to the Source
It is well documented that Lincoln spent more time outside the White House than in it. Though much of this time was spent meeting with people, Lincoln was also out seeking information he felt he needed to lead. Rather than wait for messengers to bring him battlefield reports, he would often go directly to the War Department’s Telegraph Office and read messages as they came in real time, which enabled him to make faster strategic decisions. He frequently visited Congress as well, observing their proceedings and establishing rapport with members. His desire to know every facet of government was obvious, and this continual observation helped him make more informed decisions.
Though we enjoy the benefit of many technological advances not-yet-invented in Lincoln’s age, the truth of this principle holds. Email and phone calls are now essential, but they are imperfect substitutes for seeing, learning, and speaking in person. Visit each arm of your operation regularly and learn their intricacies in as much detail as possible. When you encounter aspects you do not understand, have your experts explain to you in person. Micro-level understanding will sharpen your big picture of the company and improve your decision making.

Be an Innovator
Abraham Lincoln never assumed that the current method was best. He was curious and creative. To this day, he is the only US President to hold a patent, a device to increase the buoyancy of boats in shallow or hazardous water. His cabinet members were never “yes men,” but competent experts who would challenge his ideas and make meaningful contributions. Lincoln understood that real leaders never stop learning.
Even if you do not have the capacity or a logical motivation to innovate your products or services, there are always ways to improve our work. Examine the daily processes of your office and look for areas that could be made more efficient. Encourage creativity among your employees, and invite them to challenge or build off of your ideas. Not only will these practices strengthen your business—they will make the experience of working for your company engaging and enjoyable.
From all of us at NiteHawk Sweepers, we thank you for reading and wish you the best in your work. Please reach out to us if you have questions:

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