If you’re like most leaders, you probably spend much of your time trying to influence others over whom you have little or no authority. Some of these folks may already know you well and seek your guidance. But others likely don’t know the real you and have priorities that often seem at odds with your own. Perhaps some have even questioned your motivations, ignored your suggestions, or turned their backs on you altogether.
President Lincoln faced similar challenges. Southerners, many of whom were plantation owners with slaves, made it clear they would secede if Lincoln were elected President. His fellow Northerners, mostly industrialists who had overwhelmingly voted for him, were suspicious of his desire to negotiate with the South. Ultimately, of course, the southern states did secede and one of bloodiest battles in history broke out. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s leadership – and particularly his ability to influence others – helped lead the North to victory, reunite the states, and reconstruct America.
7 principles of professional influence we can learn from President Lincoln
1. Don’t rely solely on authority.
Lincoln was a former lawyer and an astute politician who valued the power of diplomacy. Although he possessed the legitimate authority to issue orders and act unilaterally, he preferred instead to suggest, discuss, debate, and work toward consent. His tireless attempts to negotiate for the freedom of slaves and prevent war clearly demonstrate his penchant for using influence over authority.
2. Recognize your purpose and align your work to it.
Although the details of his personal faith are often debated, Lincoln’s religious upbringing undoubtedly influenced his motivations and convictions. He frequently referenced scripture and alluded to providence in his speeches, and he clearly recognized his own providential purpose and pursued it throughout his presidency.
3. Create an “open me” policy.
Not only did Lincoln have an open door policy, he opened himself up to others and is remembered today for his honesty. Lincoln once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” He spoke the truth and welcomed feedback and criticism.
4. Listen intently to others.
Although he was an accomplished orator, Lincoln did not do all the talking. “When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say.” Even in the midst of reasoning Lincoln believed it was sometimes important to simply not speak but instead to say “Kindly let me be silent” and focus on what other person was saying.
5. Ask objective and optimistic questions.
Lincoln mastered the art of rhetoric and used Socratic questions to enable others to view circumstances objectively and visualize possibilities. In his first inaugural speech Lincoln objectively observed that, “If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him, or to others, by which authority it is done.” He continued by optimistically asking, “Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it?”
6. See situations as they are, not as you expect them to be.
Although his lofty vision was to win the war, free the slaves, and unite the nation, Lincoln remained keenly aware of the seemingly insurmountable military and political battles he fought, as well as the grave toll the war was taking on both sides. This discernment enabled him to maintain situational awareness, avoid the fog of war, and lead Union troops to victory.
7. Be gracious and make hard work look easy.
Lincoln was unpretentious and unflappable, even under immense opposition and incredible odds. Despite the unthinkable struggles he faced as President, as well as his own shortcomings as a mortal, Lincoln was even-keeled and kept his cool as he led the nation on a path to reconciliation and extended the inalienable right of freedom to all Americans. And while these monumental accomplishments ultimately cost him his life, throughout his presidency Lincoln almost made his historic efforts look effortless.
Professional influence is essential for every leader, which is why the seminar The Power of Professional Influence, featured in our 2014 Professional Development Catalog, is based on these 7 principles. You won’t learn anything about Lincoln in this seminar, but you will learn to convey purpose, demonstrate objectivity, discern the needs of others, identify win-win solutions, demonstrate grazia and sprezzatura, and influence others without being pushy. Call or email for more details. (Top hat not included.)