This Leadership Framework Helped Lincoln Save the Union. You Should Try It


Leaders are leaders, regardless of their area of endeavor: business, the military, politics, charity, clubs; even family.

The lessons we learn from leaders in one arena are often at least as valuable as those from our own, because of the outside perspective they lend.

Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. To our knowledge, Switch and Shift has few politicians who are readers. But the lessons of this great politician span any field, including business.

There exists a wide consensus that Lincoln was America’s greatest President. He was inspirational, a surprisingly savvy politician, and above all humble (something most leaders in any realm could emulate). But more importantly than any personal characteristics, he got it – he understood how to achieve the mission he was called upon to perform.

How did Lincoln do it? He mastered what I call the “Principles-to-Practices Framework”. It goes like this:

Principles – the view from space

Strategies – the view from 30,000 feet up

Tactics – the view from a second-story balcony

Practices – the view if you lie on your stomach and look down

Most leaders have a tough enough time with the second level of this framework, (Strategy), not to mention the first (Principles). Indeed, once you get comfortable viewing the world through the lens of Principles-to-Practices, you see again and again how organizations and their leaders clearly don’t get it.

Let’s dive into Principles-to-Practices with Lincoln’s Presidency, and you’ll quickly see how effective it is.

Principle: Save the Union

That’s it. Abraham Lincoln was a very active man as President, but he did not have two principles he stood for, or three, or ten. He realized from the day the South began to clamor for secession that only one thing mattered. Everything he did as President he measured against this single question: Will it, or will it not, help me save the Union?

What about your company? What are your Principles? Better yet, can you name just one, and measure everything you do by your own version of Lincoln’s litmus test?

From here, staying with Lincoln’s example, we’ll focus on just one of each of the next three items in the framework. In real life, please understand that any one principle will spawn one, two, or even a dozen strategies simultaneously, and each of those will have many tactics under it, etc. I like to think of a tree, with one trunk branching into a few big roots, to ever-more-numerous small roots.

So to continue with Lincoln…

Strategy: Wear the Confederacy Down Until They Surrender

Lincoln had a tremendous amount of trouble finding the right commanding general, it’s true, but he always knew what he needed his generals to do: fight, and fight, and fight, until the South was exhausted into capitulation. He knew the superior economy and larger population of the North would eventually prevail, if he could just keep his own people from giving up on him.

Tactic: Charge Head-on, and Don’t Let Up Until the Enemy Is Driven to Flee

This is where General Grant took over from Lincoln in the execution of the war. His job was to do exactly what his President expected of him, which was to fight until he won. How he did that was up to him. We can second-guess the tremendous loss of Union life this head-on approach took versus a more agile general such as Lee, but that is for another post (probably on a history blog).

Practice: Give the Soldiers 50 Rounds of Ammunition Each, and Resupply Them As Needed

Practices can – and often should – be changed daily, if need be. Are 50 bullets too heavy, and not necessary? Lower it to 20. Are 50 too few? Raise it to 100. Who cares? Experiment at lot, and do what works. When that stops working, change it.

Most companies are really good at measuring minutia, at determining an optimum number of bullets… or number of minutes a call center operator should be on the line, to bring this back to a business context. But as we go from the easy metrics to the less-quantifiable stuff, like “Why do we have a call center in the first place?” or “Why are so many of our customers calling with complaints?” …companies have trouble.

Worse, many have no idea there even is trouble, until it bites them in the butt with mass defection to a more customer-centric competitor.

That’s a shame. And it’s completely unnecessary. A little work higher on this framework can transform your business.

For my first post on the Principles-to-Practices Framework, read: This Trumps Strategy. You Need More of This.

To read how my Framework applies to social media, I’ll see you here this Saturday.

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • Wonderful analogy Ted! IDing the Why reason you noted marks the difference between successful and failing ventures. Thinking leaders identify motives behind any negative business circumstances. If sales drop the reason awaits for the analytic leader. On the flip side a leader who moves forward blindly missing warning signs leading to massive failure.

    If you are one of the select few leaders who lives and plans according to high energy intents, or values, you will stand out because most leaders lack the discipline to hold their highest intent. This is why many seem to sway to and fro with the breeze, both on their viewpoints, and of course, their success/fail type results are just a reflection of holding then letting go what they most value when making decisions.

    Thanks for sharing Ted!


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  • Christopher Hayes

    Thanks Ted, this is great! My view, it’s these folks who resonate these “values”, or “traits” are the true leaders, not the ones with leader in their title. Great post.

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  • Pingback: The Friday Roundup: Abe Lincoln’s leadership principles, loving yourself, something from left field and more()

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