We take leadership lessons from all levels of society, but one of the best sources of wisdom is from our presidents. Both past and present presidents have a lot to teach us, so it’s a good thing we have historians and presidential scholars to decipher these lessons for us.
In a 2008 interview with Kay Couric, President Obama said he’d be taking a book with him to the White House if he won. The book was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller Team of Rivals.
One business scholar extrapolated some great leadership lessons from interviewing Ms. Goodwin, and they could be useful to any leader, not just presidents. Here’s what she had to say.
1. How a “Team of Rivals” helped a president win a war.
Goodwin’s book was the story of how President Abraham Lincoln led the country during the Civil War. Essentially what he did was surround himself with his rivals. His “team” was made up of a very diverse collection of varying opinions, held by people who weren’t afraid to voice them to their president.
2. Lincoln’s own ‘team of rivals’ was actually a team of extremely bitter rivals!
Lincoln actually formed a cabinet full of his political enemies. The more challenge to his authority, the better, for him. He also wanted people who weren’t afraid to tell him the truth.
For example, Lincoln appointed Salmon Chase as treasury secretary and for three years tolerated Mr. Chase’s undermining his authority as well as his craving for the presidency himself. Lincoln knew that having strong opposing opinions on his team would make him a better leader.
3. Leadership lessons for presidents.
President Obama clearly saw some strong leadership lessons in this strategy, as he has done the same.
He brought in a team of important politicians who didn’t necessarily agree with him on much. What they did was to provide a rich environment for discussion of important presidential issues.
His rival, Hillary Clinton, is Secretary of state. His rival Joe Biden became VP. And his cabinet included (at beginning) Republicans Ray LaHood and Robert Gates.
4. Leadership lessons for business leaders.
What can you take away from this? It’s obvious that surrounding yourself a diverse set of opinions at work will help you lead, especially when you have difficult decisions to make, such as President Obama has had to make, and which Lincoln had to make.
There’s more to good leadership than that, however. The culture you create at work can go a long way towards determining the success you have with your teams. Letting everyone know that his or her opinion is valued, even if it’s different, is how you benefit from the diverse teams you form.
In fact, that’s perhaps the most important of the leadership lessons we have from Lincoln: valuing diversity.