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February is Presidents’ month, and in this frame, it’s a fine time to spend a few hours with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s life and leadership offer rich lessons for managers and indeed all leaders in our own turbulent moment.
Paul Angle’s The Lincoln Reader is a classic in the huge field of writing on the 16th president. But that’s not the most important reason to pick this book up. Open it because it is a great read, comprised of a range of first-hand accounts of Lincoln and narrated in clear, engaging prose. What shines through clearly in these accounts and in Angle’s expert commentary is how Lincoln used the hurdles in his path — failure, loss, confusion, and more — as learning opportunities. They became avenues to deeper insight and confidence in himself and thus important milestones along his leadership journey.
David Donald’s 1995 biography, titled simply Lincoln, is arguably the best single-volume work on the Civil War president in many decades. Donald’s deep knowledge of and care for his subject flow through each page, guiding the reader along the, at times, astounding path that Lincoln walked and examining how his leadership developed during his presidency. Donald’s work is particularly relevant to leaders working in the midst of great uncertainty because he focuses on how Lincoln never lost sight of the larger stage and his own mission as the country’s chief executive on that stage.
In honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth last year, the Library of America produced a first-rate anthology of writings about Lincoln. Edited by Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Anthology contains all manner of (concise) observations about Lincoln and his legacy from individuals as varied as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Gore Vidal. Their viewpoints are not to be missed, not only because of the diversity of their distinct perspectives on Lincoln’s humanity — how he dressed and spoke and told a joke — but also because the reader comes away from the book with a much clearer sense of a leader’s impact: the shapes this impact takes, its importance in the moment, and its consequences long after a leader finishes his or her work.
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Nancy Koehn is an authority on entrepreneurial history and is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where her research focuses on entrepreneurship and leadership. She is the editor of the book The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times, published by Harvard Business Press in October 2009.