Today is Presidents’ Day in the US. Because of the upcoming federal election, a lot of ink has been spilled on the special talents corporate managers might bring to the presidency. But on this holiday, I think it’s worth examining what the CEO of a nation might teach the CEO of a commercial business.
My favorite lesson is found in “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal account of Abraham Lincoln’s managerial genius. Most of us know Edwin Stanton as Lincoln’s secretary of war. What isn’t so well known—or anyway wasn’t to me until I read Goodwin’s account of it—is that just six years before his cabinet appointment, Stanton treated Lincoln shamefully. Here’s the story.
In 1855, the inventor of the mechanical reaper sued the John Manny Company for patent infringement. The company engaged the George Harding law firm in Philadelphia to lead its defense. Because the case would be tried in Chicago, Harding went looking for assistance from a local attorney. Following up a referral, he retained Lincoln (then living in Springfield) in June.
The gig represented a huge break for Lincoln’s legal career. He was excited about it and began work immediately. Not long afterward, Harding learned the trial venue was moved from Chicago to Cincinnati. There went Harding’s whole reason for engaging Lincoln, and he hired Cincinnati-based attorney Stanton instead.
Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell Lincoln about this turn of events. He worked on the case all summer, and in September set out for Cincinnati with “a lengthy brief in his hands.” When he arrived at the hotel where all the lawyers were staying, he introduced himself to Stanton and suggested they all go up to the courthouse together. As Goodwin tells it:
“At that point, Stanton drew Harding aside and whispered, ‘Why did you bring that d—d long armed Ape here…he does not know anything and can do you no good.’ With that, Stanton and Harding turned from Lincoln and continued to court on their own.
“In the days that followed, Stanton ‘managed to make it plain to Lincoln’ that he was expected to remove himself from the case…Harding never opened Lincoln’s manuscript, ‘so sure that it would be only trash.’ Throughout that week, though Lincoln ate at the same hotel, Harding and Stanton never asked him to join them for a meal, or accompany them to or from court. When Judge John McLean hosted a dinner for the lawyers on both sides, Lincoln was not invited.”
Lincoln did withdraw as Stanton demanded, but stayed for the trial anyway so he could watch Stanton and learn from him. Once the trial ended, though, Lincoln left town immediately. He couldn’t bear the thought of visiting Cincinnati ever again.
Even so, after gaining the presidency in 1861 Lincoln offered Stanton the cabinet post. According to Goodwin, “Lincoln’s choice of Stanton would reveal…a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness. As for Stanton, despite his initial contempt for the ‘long armed Ape,’ he would not only accept the offer but come to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family.”
Goodwin’s book is full of such vignettes, but that particular one especially strikes a chord with me. So many management problems stem from someone using their authority to satisfy a petty craving for status, control, admiration, aggression, or revenge.
Not Lincoln. He understood he was but a steward of something far greater than himself. He realized he needed Stanton; that the lawyer from Ohio with the insufferably superior attitude could help him preserve the daring but troubled American experiment. With that singular objective, Lincoln set aside any personal feelings he might have had.
I think about this story often and try to live up to Lincoln’s standard every day.