3 Leadership Lessons From Abraham Lincoln

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As one of the most recognizable names in U.S. history, today's leaders and entrepreneurs can learn a lot from President Abraham Lincoln.

The nation's 16th president who was at the helm of a country in crisis during the American Civil War, Lincoln's morals and character proved a strong presence during the turmoil.

Lincoln was primarily self-educated in his early years. He rose to become a lawyer and state legislator before moving to grander political efforts. Honest Abe, as he was known, established the Emancipation Proclamation, which set in motion the ultimate demise of slavery. President Lincoln also was an avid militia expert.

To commemorate what would have been his 204th birthday on Tuesday, TheStreet spoke to a handful of executive-search experts to pull together some of Lincoln's more admirable traits.

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1. He was relatable.

Lincoln was also known to be a decisive leader, but he didn't rely on information that was twice-removed to make his decisions. As an avid researcher and reader to begin with, he often culled information "from the field" before making a decision. And in order to get that information, the president spoke with as many people as possible.

"He met the troops, he visited hospitals and had an open-door policy. That's a sign of a great leader -- welcoming feedback and with that feedback and intelligence they are able to make better decisions," says Steven Raz, co-founder and managing partner of Cornerstone Search Group, which focuses on the pharmaceutical and life-science industries.

"He was one that didn't just sit in the White House. He was known for getting out in front with the troops and common men. I think he believed that a lot of his intelligence and data points shouldn't come from polls or surveys, but hearing it firsthand," Raz says.

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In Lincoln's case, his stakeholders were soldiers and common men, but he also worked hard to get other politicians to his cause to unify the Union and eventually abolish slavery.

Once he received the feedback he needed, he was known for making decisions, even if they weren't the right ones all the time. Even though Lincoln knew he wouldn't get a consensus, especially on slavery, he made the best decision he could based on the information he had at the time.

"The key is not to waver, but be decisive," Raz says. "When you make a decision, you create some sort of momentum. You're moving forward -- even if the course isn't exactly right."

2. Honest Abe holds true.

President Lincoln might best be known for his integrity and willingness to do the right thing even if it was difficult or unpopular.

"Recognizing the role he had in the government and the sensitive and the compartmentalization with the U.S. government at that time, unless he had that reputation, I don't think anything he accomplished would have been accomplished ... which is of course is why I think he is the most celebrated president in U.S. history," says Chad Oakley, President and COO at Charles Aris.

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"There are a lot of people who perhaps, even though they know something is incorrect or wrong as opposed to choosing to manage that conflict, they will choose simply to not engage, whereas Lincoln chose to engage," he adds.

It's a reason why he garnered so much respect, even if it did make him unpopular at times.

"Literally just yesterday I dealt with this," Oakley said last week. "A long-term client of Charles Aris called to kick off a brand new search. When compensation came up -- and this just happens to be a type of talent we know very well -- what they wanted to pay was not realistic. It would have been very easy for us to say 'no problem,' knowing full well we can't do it ... instead we said 'this is not going to happen; let's talk about alternatives now as opposed to later.'"

Oakley says while the firm lost money in the short term, he hopes it will be worthwhile for the long-term relationship. "That's how Lincoln approached life -- integrity and never taking the short path so that when you really do need to go to the mat with a client, they will listen and value that guidance much more so," he says.

3. He picked strong team members.

"Lincoln embraced other strong-minded individuals for his Cabinet and many of them were his political adversaries, which is unusual," says Mike Starich, president of Orion International. "For me, it's a lesson learned recently: You have to have others on your team who are not afraid to challenge you" or at least feel comfortable enough to express their opinion (stopping short of insubordination), he says.

"The collective wisdom of your subordinates is often more important than your own wisdom. And I think Lincoln knew that too. He picked strong people to stand up to him or at least to coach him in a way that made him better," Starich says.

And while Lincoln gave a good bit of slack to his generals to succeed on their own, he also wasn't afraid to remove underperformers. A common story is in the battle of Gettysburg, where the North kept failing at trying to win the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. But after each setback, Lincoln kept removing generals until one -- Ulysses S. Grant -- won the battle in 1865.

"He did not let any personal relationships interfere with his goals," Starich says. "I've seen myself and my managers hang on to people that were marginal players ... for fear of being the bad guy or hopes for improved performance. Give them a chance but don't give them too much rope."

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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