Lincoln and leadership

A recent Schumpeter column published in The Economist, “Lincoln and leadership,” explains how and why outsiders can make the best leaders—and also the worst. To read the complete article, please click here.

Illustration: Brett Ryder

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IN MAY 1860 the Republican National Convention met in Chicago, in the teeth of the worst crisis since the revolution, to choose a presidential candidate—or, rather, a president, since the Democratic Party had split asunder. The candidates included two of the most experienced politicians in America—William Seward and Salmon Chase—but the delegates bet instead on a one-term congressman who had failed to win a Senate seat for his native state, Illinois, and who suffered from debilitating depressions.

Abraham Lincoln now regularly tops historians’ lists of the greatest American presidents. But he owes his greatness partly to the fact that he was an outsider on whom no sensible man would have bet. He made a series of bold moves—such as sending ships to supply Fort Sumter, thereby forcing the South to fire the first shot of the civil war—that his more experienced rivals might not have made. And he gave a series of nation-defining speeches that nobody else in the country could have delivered.

It is no surprise that the leadership-cum-management industry has embraced the outsized figure of Lincoln. Donald Phillips’s study, Lincoln on Leadership, bears the subtitle “Executive Strategies for Tough Times”. Nor is it surprising that Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, is boosting the lessons-from-Lincoln trade. Executives are once again practising the Gettysburg address before their mirrors and reading the book that gave Mr Spielberg his inspiration, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Most of this is nonsense. Mr Phillips uses Lincoln to illustrate well-worn nostrums such as the virtues of managing by walking around (Lincoln spent a lot of time walking around battlefields). Ms Goodwin’s advice about “teams of rivals” would produce havoc in the average corporation. Any boss who imitated Mr Spielberg’s Lincoln and roared that he was “clothed in immense power” would soon find himself out of a job. “Towering genius disdains a beaten path,” Lincoln once said, which limits what can be learned from his example.

But not all Lincolnology is tosh. In his new book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, Gautam Mukunda, of Harvard Business School, uses Lincoln to examine one of the liveliest debates in modern management—whether insiders or outsiders make better bosses. Before the financial crisis the consensus was strongly in favour of insiders. But it is shifting, partly because so many insiders made a hash of things and partly because companies are casting around for a way to reignite growth. In an annual study of 2,500 companies Booz & Company, a consultancy, calculates that the proportion of chief-executive posts going to outsiders rose from 14% in 2007 to 22% in 2011. In Europe the share went from 14% to 31%. On November 26th Britain broke with precedent by appointing a Canadian, Mark Carney, to run the Bank of England.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

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