You have heard that good quality leaders would do best not to surround themselves with “yes men.” This is true for several different reasons, including:
- It allows for a diversity of thought, allowing leaders to reach a new dimension of possibilities they never thought possible.
- It allows leaders to avoid pitfalls. Suppose a member of their team provides a contrary opinion about a decision. In that case, that opinion is worth listening to, as it may offer a possible problem-or highlight a possible consequence of that decision.
- It may reduce the turnover rate at any given organization since your team members will be “in the room where it happens,” and therefore feel like their opinions are valued.
Keep Your Enemies Close
One leader who did this very well was Abraham Lincoln. His “Team of Rivals” has been widely read about, especially by fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of the same name. Lincoln, a one-term US Congressman and failed Senate candidate, unexpectedly won the young Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency in 1860. He defeated better-known rivals who were — by all conventional wisdom — more likely to have gained enough support to win because of their name recognition, political success, etc. Here’s a quick run-down:
Simon Cameron, a lifelong Democrat who later switched parties in the late 1840s because his party supported slavery, was a Pennsylvania politics power player. Having represented the state in the United States Senate for eight years before running for President in 1860, Cameron finished third in the initial balloting at the 1860 Republican National Convention. In a little give-and-take maneuvering, Cameron released his delegates to Lincoln, and in return, was promised a Cabinet position (eventually serving as Lincoln’s 1st Secretary of War).
Salmon Chase, before 1860, served as both a senator and a governor from the State of Ohio. He received 49 votes on the first ballot and eventually supported Abraham Lincoln for the nomination. After Lincoln’s election, he selected Chase to serve as Secretary of the Treasury. A thorn in Lincoln’s side during his tenure, he finally accepted Chase’s resignation near the first term’s conclusion. Late in 1864, Lincoln nominated the former Cabinet official to serve as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, where he served until he died in 1874.
Edward Bates, the oldest of Lincoln’s rivals and member of the prominent Bates political and banking family, spent most of his career as a Missouri attorney with stints as the state’s attorney general and Congress member. After a poor showing during the first ballot of the 1860 Convention and a loss to Lincoln, the new President appointed Bates as his attorney general, where he served for most of the first term.
William Seward was Lincoln’s biggest rival at the 1860 Republican Convention. His resume included stints as New York’s governor and senator, and he led Lincoln during the first two rounds of balloting at the convention. Still, eventually, Lincoln (with the help of the other candidates’ delegates) collected enough votes to make his way past Seward and towards his party’s nomination. The new President appointed Seward as his Secretary of State, and he would eventually become Lincoln’s closest associate in the Cabinet.
Though part of their appointments was a negotiating tactic to serve up their delegates, these four men led the most prestigious departments (the original four created during the Washington presidency) under Lincoln’s watch. Seward, Chase, Cameron, and Bates somewhat objected to each other being part of this new Cabinet, as they differed in personalities and ideologies, as they represented different wings of the Republican Party. But this was part of Lincoln’s genius.
One could claim that Lincoln’s appointment of his rivals followed the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” But, Lincoln’s reasoning differed. He reasoned that at a time of peril (remember, seven states seceded during the months between Lincoln’s election and inauguration), the country needed to have the strongest men. Additionally, because these men came from various backgrounds, Lincoln would have access to a wide range of opinions, which, in the words of Goodwin, “would sharpen his thinking.” The variety of views debating at one table would help the sharply divided country. Finally, it allowed Lincoln to take the long picture.
Rather than appointing men who would agree with him and help push a short-term agenda, the country benefited from a president whose vision exceeded short-term gains. His goal — saving the Union — was far more important to him than a cabinet that would only serve his ego.
Lincoln’s ability to manage his Cabinet’s diverse ideas stemmed from his extraordinarily strong emotional intelligence (EQ). Despite some being difficult to work with (Chase and Cameron specifically), Lincoln knew that he had to work effectively with them, and displayed certain qualities that, today, more and more companies seem to desire in their CEOs — namely honesty, compassion, and intelligence.
“When something went well,” said Goodwin in an interview with the National Archives, “Lincoln always shared the credit. When something went wrong, he shouldered his share of the blame. When he made a mistake, he acknowledged it immediately. He made time for each of his cabinet members to feel they had access to them. He treated them all respectfully, fairly, and he kept their spirits up. He relaxed his colleagues and cheered them up.
“In the end, these people came not only to respect Lincoln but also to love him. Seward, who started as Lincoln’s biggest rival, ultimately wrote to his wife, ‘The President is the best of us.'”
Abraham Lincoln, who, unlike his colleagues, did not start from a place of privilege and had a long road to travel to get to the White House, proved to be a leader of tremendous talents. Some of it was innate; nonetheless, his qualities can be an example for business and government leaders today.
The sixteenth president was not afraid to be challenged. He believed that by surrounding himself with those who competed against him, he would be a more successful leader and fine-tune his message, much like the marketing departments of various brands. He tethered himself to his rivals, and in doing so, tethered himself to the best interests of his country.
Where’s the Tether?
Do not be afraid to tether yourself to your rivals. Indeed, there is a chance that their motives remain against your best interests. With a keen awareness of this fact and allowing your advisers to feel like they have agency, you, and your organization, it will be better for it. #LincolnThinkin’