Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

  • by Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Review by Alamo Heights Superintendent Kevin Brown
    Sometimes the truth is more compelling than fiction, especially when it is told as artfully and dramatically as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

    Goodwin masterfully tells the story of Lincoln’s life, ascendancy in politics and his extraordinary tenure as president during the most difficult time in our nation’s history. How did one man end slavery, keep unity in his party, ignore enormous personal attacks, lead the Union army and save our nation? If you thought running a school was tough, this will give you some perspective!

    This book brings together three things I really love — history, leadership and great stories. My favorite authors and thinkers — such as Peter Senge, Peter Drucker, John Collins and Phil Schlechty — all contribute mightily to what it means to be a public school leader and are very worthy of our study. “Team of Rivals,” though, is the best book about leadership I have read, and it is not really a book on leadership at all. It turns out that a wonderful way to learn the traits necessary to lead in tough times is to study a man who is arguably the greatest leader in American history.

    Everyone knows Lincoln 101, but it is the inner details of his decisions that are most illuminating. After his election, as our nation was falling apart, Lincoln appointed his greatest rivals to his cabinet, each of whom ached to be president himself — William Seward, Samuel Chase, Montgomery Blair and Edward Bates. In some cases, these were men who hated Lincoln and each other. But Lincoln appointed them because he considered them to be the most qualified, and he valued the wisdom their differing perspectives would bring at such a critical time. Eventually, the cabinet members grew to admire Lincoln.

    There are many lessons in this book for administrators, but here are a few:
    • Statesmanship. There is a saying,“Be in the world but not of the world.” Lincoln rose above the petty politics of the time and remained totally committed to saving our nation, rather than getting bogged down in personal and political differences. All politicians should take this to heart!
    • Visibility. Lincoln would often travel to the battlefield to visit his generals, boost the morale of the soldiers and see for himself what was occurring.
    • Affirmation. He gave staff credit for successes and took the blame for failures, instilling trust and encouraging risk-taking.
    • Communication. He was a gifted orator and writer who portrayed a vision of a unified nation without slavery.
    • Character. Perhaps most importantly, “Honest Abe” could be counted on to always do the right thing for his country.
    I hope you enjoy reading this outstanding book. Another book, “Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times,” by Donald T. Phillips, is an excellent companion piece that condenses many leadership concepts Lincoln embodies but with less depth and intrigue. Together, the two books are winners, and you will be too — if you read them!