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How to manage a ‘team of rivals’

Goodwin

As many as 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. It’s likely no one has read them all, but by consensus, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” is among the very, very best.

The memorable 2012 film “Lincoln” was based on “Team,” and its director, Steven Spielberg, plans to make a movie of Goodwin’s latest work, a historical narrative of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the age of muckraking journalism.

Her magic at re-creating the past always has a purpose. For four decades “I have lived with dead presidents,” said Goodwin, whose subjects include Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Leadership was the theme of Goodwin’s talk to an audience at the Notre Dame last Sunday, and she illuminated the subject by recounting how Lincoln brought together a now-famously dysfunctional group of leaders into the most effective Cabinet in presidential history. The group included three men whom Lincoln had bested in the race for the presidency.

“He was determined from the start not to disparage his rivals while they were busy disparaging one another,” Goodwin said. And so, when the Republican Convention in 1860 was unable to agree on frontrunner William Seward or candidates Salmon P. Chase or Edward Bates, delegates for all the others turned to Lincoln, the only candidate who had not attacked their own favorite.

The night he won the election, Goodwin said, Lincoln “made the decision that would define his presidency – to put each of his chief rivals in his Cabinet.” Later he added William H. Stanton, who had once humiliated Lincoln, disparaging him to other lawyers as “a long-armed ape.”

“Lincoln said, ‘I should despise myself if I allow personal differences to affect my judgment of fitness for office.’ ”

It made for the strongest Cabinet in presidential history and undoubtedly helped Lincoln prevail in the Civil War.

The secret to Lincoln’s success was not just in bringing together such disparate and querulous personalities, but in getting them to work together.

Goodwin has identified several key components of Lincoln’s approach to management:

“He created a climate in which people felt free to disagree without fear of consequences.”

Before Lincoln reached a decision on the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, the Cabinet had debated it extensively. Every secretary had had his say on the far-reaching executive order.

When Lincoln pulled the Cabinet members together and told them he’d decided to issue the proclamation, Goodwin said, “several still disagreed, but because they’d been listened to all those months, they never made their disagreement public.”

Lincoln was “willing to acknowledge error and profit from his mistakes,” Goodwin said.

“This ability, it has been said, literally turns failure into success.

“Always when something went wrong, he would write down what happened so it wouldn’t happen a second time.”

Goodwin offered up one of those uncannily folksy-yet-succinct Lincoln quotes: “I’d like to believe I’m smarter today than I was yesterday.”

“He was almost always able to control his emotions.”

When Lincoln lost his temper with a general or Cabinet member, he apologized. “He repaired injured feelings.”

“He knew how to relax.”

True, Lincoln was shot while attending a play. But he actually attended the theater more than 100 times during his presidency. Under immense pressure every day, he loved to lose himself for a couple of hours in a story from another place and time.

His acute sense of humor also helped him and those around him to relax.

“He once said he laughed so he did not weep – that a good story provided more comfort for him than a drop of whiskey.”

Political satirists such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart wouldn’t have fazed him. “If Lincoln was still alive, he would absolutely be able to counter them one on one.”

“He never lost sight of the people he represented.”

He endured endless visitors and receptions at the White House, calling them “my public-opinion baths.”

And he often visited the troops on the day after a battle.

“He possessed a remarkable ability to communicate his goals to his countrymen with stories, with everyday metaphors, as well as with the beauty of language.”

Though Lincoln, of course, had little formal education, it was, Goodwin said, “almost as if the poetry and drama he had loved as a child had worked their way into his very soul.”

Goodwin’s talk showed the value of learning for its own sake. She spent 10 years “living” with Lincoln – “longer than any of my other presidents.” Yet the fruits of that study were as fresh as a cutting-edge management seminar. That work – that curiosity about another time, and the drive to re-create it today – can be rewarding for the writer and the reader or listener.

“I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history,” she said at the annual president’s brunch for St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, “allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to believe that the private people we have loved and lost in our families, and the public figures we have respected in history … really can live on, so long as we pledge to tell, and retell, the stories of their lives.”

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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