Saturday, December 31, 2016

Completed: Lincoln on Leadership

[Dear god, this post is long. I even chopped it down. I'm sorry. I'm better at editing someone else's work...]

Dear Jenny,

Over a year two years ago, I was promoted to a management position at my former company. As a result of this, I got a surprising number of book recommendations regarding all kinds of management and business practices. At first, it seemed helpful, but then I was... kind of resentful. I mean, I've got a giant pile of books that I want to read and now I've got a fresh pile of books to read about... work? Ugh.

(Side note: One of my colleagues actually handled this beautifully and would cite specific chapters from a book she recommended that would directly relate to management challenges that I was having. Now that is a generous and genuinely helpful way to recommend a management book!)

One of the books recommendednay, literally pressed into my handswas a dog-eared copy of Lincoln on Leadership. Our neighbor loves this book so much that he carries it around in his backpack all of the time and re-reads it every year. He loaned me his copy and insisted that it was the best management book that I would ever read.

Honestly, I wasn't that into it  I had a stack of other books piling up from colleagues  buuuut... he's my neighbor and he has just loaned me his very favorite book. So I added it to my TBR list on this blog, knowing that if I committed publicly to reading it, I would [most likely] actually do it (unlike the 10-15 other management books gathering the electronic equivalent of dust on my Kindle right now...)

Of course, as we both know... I am no longer a manager! But I had committed to reading this book. So I did it. My change in employment status + my general intolerance for non-fiction made this book a bit of a slog, but I did it, and I made some notes, so lemme flip through them and jot down some thoughts for ya here...

The premise of the book is: "Lincoln was a great leader and here's why (and how)." The author compiled a bunch of information on Lincoln and grouped together some examples which showcased Lincoln's leadership philosophies and practices.

Note: Given that my neighbor's copy was so precious to him (meaning I was likely to drop it directly into a puddle), I immediately bought the Kindle version of this book to read and take notes in. My notes give "Kindle Locations" for citations.

One misstep:
For the most part, I found this book interesting and useful. But there was this oooooone little thing that bugged me: At the end of each chapter, there's a bullet-pointed summary of the chapter's big takeaways. That's terrific -- great to have those later when the narrative has faded from our minds.

However, the author wrote this in the Introduction: "The reader will note, by the way, that certain Lincoln 'principles,' cited at the end of each chapter, will not have been introduced previously in the chapter narrative. In all cases, these new principles derive from actual Lincoln quotes relevant to the chapter’s theme."

I'm going to call BS on this. There were several times when I reviewed the "Principles" at the end of the chapter and thought, "Waaaaait a minute... when, exactly, did you bring up that notion?" Such a strange choice and negated a lot of credibility.

Having said that... there were also a lot of great messages in this book...

Hiring takes a long time
"Contemporary leaders who experience difficulties finding the right chief subordinate can take comfort in the knowledge that at this point in the Civil War, Lincoln had spent more than two and a half years searching for an aggressive general who could do the job." [1611]

This actually did make me feel pretty good! We would spend months interviewing and hiring a single candidate. And that was so exhausting that, if they didn't turn out to be a good fit, we wouldn't want to get rid of them because... gah. Go back to the beginning?! I always felt like it was better to cut our losses and start over (because managing a "bad fit" was SO exhausting) but most did not agree with me. So Lincoln's my man -- sometimes it takes years to find the right candidate for the job!

It's all just "news"
"By today’s standards, the moniker 'Honest Abe' might be considered pretentious, even contrived. But the fact is that leaders who tell their subordinates the truth, even when the news is bad, gain greater respect and support for ideas than their less virtuous counterparts." [732]

I always say, "There is no 'good news' or 'bad news' -- there is just 'news.' So let's just focus on how we're going to deliver it." This concept is not at all popular, either at work or in personal lives, but shit. The news has got to be delivered. Taking care with messaging also lessens the "bad news" blow. For instance, when people left (either voluntarily or not) my workplace, no one wanted to announce it ("But that's bad news!") But without announcements, people got waaaaaay more freaked out when colleagues suddenly "disappeared" (or seemed to). If you just treat it like what it is (news) and handle it accordingly, you can go a long way towards neutralizing the negative reaction to the news.

Let's get together
"Frequently, getting people together can avoid destructive thinking that tends to build on people’s misgivings and apprehensions about others and their departments." [1276]

So true. I witnessed this time and again at work. Once people decide to start complaining about another person or department's work, it just snowballs. But if you get people together (and keep getting them together), that's the way to overcome those hurdles. This is especially true when groups are geographically distant from one another. 

Kinda painful...
"After all, the most important asset an organization has is its employees." [514]

After what happened with my former company, re-reading that quote is a bit of a kick in the gut...
especially because we went from being a company that did feel that way to be a company that did not. Ugh.

"In business, for example, new CEOs often take the reins of a struggling corporation by instituting massive layoffs without concern for the welfare of employees. They concentrate solely on achieving bottom-line results. On the other hand, many executives are often afraid to take decisive action for fear of adversely impacting people. In either case, too much focus on one principle over the other usually results in failure. Lincoln, however, knew it was important to do both." [2174] 

I have witnessed both of those scenarios now (the blind cutting and the blind keeping of dead wood) and neither are good. Lincoln knew what he was talking about!

"Rather than inhibiting progress or sapping energy, innovative thinking actually increases an organization’s chances of survival. With today’s technology changing so rapidly, modern corporations simply must be able to respond and innovate. This is particularly true of the computer industry, for example, where today’s greatest, most advanced invention is often tomorrow’s dinosaur." [1670]

Our company was the worst at innovation. We started with a fantastic product and then we just continued to develop that single product for 19 years. Over time, we had innovators join the company, but when they discovered that their ideas were going nowhere, they would leave.

It's not just demoralizing on a personal level ("I can't get anything done around here/my company does not respect my ideas"), but also on a larger company level ("Holy hell. This place is never going to succeed!" <-- Fact.)  I honestly have no idea how this concept was so foreign at my place of work, but it was nice (if painful) to see it spelled out here.

On this, I disagree:
"Leadership often involves parenting, and Lincoln’s fatherly tendencies aided him in his position as president. The organization is the family; the leaders is the head of the family. Consequently, leaders often nurture and guide subordinates much as parents do children." [646]

No. Nonononono. I think "nurturing [the career of] and guiding" subordinates is correct, but I think that can be done in a non-parental way. I find the concept that one needs to "parent" their subordinates to be both condescending to the employees and f'ing exhausting for the managers. 

However, I do agree with this thought along the same lines:

"Lincoln also tempered his unusually intense drive to achieve with an equally strong capacity to care."[2173]

I think you can have empathy and compassion for people and still not treat them as your child. Maybe it's easier to slip into a parental role (I've certainly had some managers who did do that [which I hated]) but saying that it's supposed to be that way (in the above quote) is never going to hold water with me.

I also learned a bunch of other stuff about Lincoln that you probably already know cause you live in Illinois, but I'm not going to list that here. I'll just say that I do feel slightly better educated as a result of reading this book, which is always nice. 

And... BOOM. (Two more to go!)


1 comment:

  1. Oh, I HATE the "workplace as family" metaphor. It's just such a problem. It's not like coworkers are squabbling over cereal! I don't care if Lincoln espoused it--it's actual patriarchy defined!

    Does sound like sort of a dry read; must have been interesting to read it from the perspective of the funemployment! Probably a relief on every page to remind yourself that you aren't managing anymore.