I recently finished Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remarkable book about Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin follows Lincoln from his surprising selection as the presidential nominee for the Republican Party through his tragic death at the hands of an assassin.
Team of Rivals takes its title from the remarkable cast of characters that Lincoln chose as his closest advisors and members of his cabinet. They included his three primary rivals for the Republican nomination, all of whom were better qualified (on paper) and had more experience than Lincoln. The cabinet also included individuals from opposing political parties.
Team of Rivals is a fascinating historical account, but it also has great application for church and ministry leaders today. Much has been written about the chaotic and uncertain future facing today’s leaders. But surely Lincoln’s situation was just as complex, with the democratic ideal still relatively new and a nation divided by seemingly irreconcilable differences. Even though the path forward for Lincoln and the country was rarely clear, he had no choice other than to press ahead based on his best assessment.
Four other important leadership lessons in Team of Rivals are:
- Choose people who are more qualified may not always agree with you. Goodwin makes it clear that Lincoln’s cabinet was contentious at times, but the vigorous debate that grew out of their diversity led to better decisions that held the Union together.
- The buck stops on the leader’s desk. Lincoln frequently took the blame for unpopular or failed decisions, even when it would have been easy to let a subordinate take the fall. Today, we often see the opposite, with leaders looking for someone to blame even when they are responsible.
- Doing the right thing may not be popular. I was surprised to learn that Lincoln’s nomination and election for a second term were in doubt until just weeks before the 1864 election. He doggedly pursued what he considered to be the right course of action, including decisions about emancipation and continuation of the war, even in the face of severe criticism, at times from his own allies.
- Integrity matters deeply. Quotes from letters and diaries of Lincoln’s advisors show that they frequently disagreed with him, but his willingness to listen and his unquestionable integrity won their support over and over.
Leadership isn’t easy, whether one is at the helm of a divided nation or of a church in turbulent times. Would a team of rivals help you lead more effectively?
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