Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons

The Sunday New York Times business section recently (January 26, 2013) ran a piece by Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn entitled “Lincoln’s School of Management. “. Prof. Koehn has developed a teaching case on President Lincoln that she uses with mid-career students. In the Times article, in addition to her own discussion of Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, she reports on the response of her students to the Lincoln case.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations … Listening, always being present, and authenticity are essential leadership qualities whether one is leading a country in wartime or a company during a period of transformation.”

Ari Bloom, “a strategic adviser to consumer-related companies and a former student of [Prof. Koehn] wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances … This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing.”

And Kelly Close “founder and president of Close Concerns, a health care information firm” wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “being responsible for even a small company and all the people and issues involved in such management forces you to come to terms with yourself and whether you can rise to the challenge … [Lincoln] was able to do this in a way that amazes and inspires me.”

It appears that what Prof. Koehn does in her pedagogy is depict Lincoln’s leadership traits (“resilience, emotional intelligence”) and practices (“thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument”) and draw specific leadership lessons from them. She then applies those lessons to her students’ context, for example “the ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards is vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders.” Finally, judging from the emails she quoted, she encourages her students to identify with Lincoln, thinking of their own challenges and struggles as comparable to his.

I think the identification of leadership traits and practices in an historical individual is an acceptable practice in management education. Drawing lessons from those traits and practices is also acceptable, with the caveat that traits and practices depend on context, so that traits and practices useful in one context might be problematic in another. What I find objectionable is the promotion of identification with Lincoln.

Lincoln was a political leader who faced an existential challenge to his nation. Even among political leaders, only a small proportion ever faced an existential challenge to their nation’s survival. The leap from government to business and from existential threats to business opportunities and problems is a metaphor too far. The emails Prof. Koehn quotes strike me as expressions of delusions of grandeur or managerial hubris, sanctioned by Prof. Koehn’s pedagogy. Business schools in general, and the Harvard Business School in particular, promote this sort of managerial grandiosity.

It seems to me that Harvard Business School’s emphasis on a reductionistic pragmatism, as taught by the case method, provides a particular ineffective template for public sector decision making. One need only think of George W. Bush’s failures as “decider” and Mitt Romney’s disastrous presidential campaign to recognize the shortcomings of that approach when applied to the public sector arena.

I would advise Prof. Koehn to continue studying Lincoln and mining his experience for valuable nuggets of advice for managers. But the strongest piece of advice I would give Prof. Koehn and her students is to respect both Lincoln’s genius and the uniqueness of his context and stop deluding themselves by over-reaching in their identification.



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