Saturday, April 8, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Team of Rivals

The conduct of the republican party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller. They pass over...statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar.

Don't worry: this blog has not strayed from genealogy to politics. Nor has it lost its sense of history. However, in a déjà vu moment, in reading the introductory pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I found her quote of this passage from the May 19, 1860, edition of the New York Herald pause-worthy.

The comment, of course, was referring not to any current political aspirant, but was a reflection on the then-recent nomination of Abraham Lincoln for President of the United States.

How different things turned out to be.

In pulling an untouched book down from our family's well-stocked bookshelves for this month's read, I confess to wandering from my own past purchases to those of my husband. I have a reason for that. In a matter of only a few months, I will most likely find myself becoming the president of a small genealogical society. Admittedly, that is absolutely no comparison to a task as monumental as leading an entire nation, but I sense there is something to learn from looking to Abraham Lincoln's historic example.

So this week—as if I didn't have enough books of my own to finish—I found myself asking to borrow a book from someone else's bookshelves. I asked my husband to bring me that "slim volume" about the "team of rivals" Lincoln had assembled for his cabinet.

My sense of the matter is that leadership calls for the skill of being able to assemble well-qualified people with conflicting points of view to accomplish the organization's goals. If we guide our organizations by a body of leaders who collectively see everything eye to eye, we lose the perspective that may come only with dissent. Since so many tend to shy from disagreement, we prefer surrounding ourselves with "yes men." That, as we've seen in the past, is a recipe for group-think Kool-Aid, the kind that makes us drunk with the desensitized feeling that everything will run okay, despite indications to the opposite.

It is unquestionably a skill to be able to assemble a group of leaders who can tackle overarching corporate goals by pulling together in the same direction while also possessing differing outlooks, experiences, and opinions that can spark disagreements and dissension.

Granted, without those divergent views, meetings can run more smoothly and everyone will seem happier. But working in lockstep can also mean not being able to predict missed opportunities—or worse, avoid looming pitfalls. Having the ability to take in a 360 degree view, while providing the antidote to that groupthink trap, also means being willing to expose one's self to divergent viewpoints—plus the risk of disagreement and the hassle of debate that comes with such territory.

When Doris Kearns Goodwin penned the introduction to her book, she listed several qualities she observed in Abraham Lincoln's "extraordinary array of personal qualities" which contributed to his "political genius." For those brave enough to harness the raw power and benefit of divergent thinkers, we can all take a leadership lesson from her list. Here are some of the skills she saw in Lincoln that "enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him" in his political career:
  • To repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility;
  • To assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates;
  • To share credit with ease;
  • To learn from mistakes.

The author's commentary on Lincoln's political prowess concluded, "the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be impressive political resources."

The lessons on Lincoln's leadership style were enough to fill over nine hundred pages in Goodwin's book. So much for my mistaken memory of a "slim volume" on that team of rivals. While those lessons go far beyond such interpersonal skills mentioned in the points above, they do exhibit one key: much of leadership comes down to relational skills. Whether for a national position or for a more humble mission, these are lessons in leadership which, applied in good measure, would make any organization a more effective—and fulfilling—entity.


  1. Love the quote, history is never over til it's over!
    You will make a great leader and President for your Society!
    In my experience with those "presidents" the ones that looked at the whole picture moving forward did the best. The ones that had only their pet projects were the most difficult to work with.

    1. It is indeed much more exciting when the whole organization is making progress and moving forward. You've had plenty of experience with both types, Far Side. Thanks for your vote of confidence.


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