HR Success Through Lens of Lincoln

By Staff Report

Jun. 19, 2008

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Keynote Speaker
8:30 p.m.

Arriving at the White House in 1861, Abraham Lincoln faced the enormous challenge of holding together a country that was fractured over slavery.

    As everyone who has passed a high school civics course knows, Lincoln went on to lay the foundation for the modern United States and become a towering figure in American history.

    What may not be as apparent is that Lincoln also serves a role model for executive leadership in talent management and team building.

    If anyone could outline Lincoln’s HR gifts and how they can be applied in 2009, it would be historian and writer Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin, author of the 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, will be Tuesday’s keynote speaker.

    Goodwin has written books about Presidents Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. A former aide to Johnson, Goodwin later helped him prepare his memoirs. Goodwin also was an NBC political analyst, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Colby College, as well as a doctorate from Harvard, where she also has taught.

    In addition to her penchant for politics, she loves baseball. Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir is her ode to the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, her favorite team. As a baseball writer, she became the first woman to enter the Boston Red Sox locker room. She was a consultant to Ken Burns for his PBS documentary The History of Baseball.

    In her best-seller Rivals, Goodwin depicts how Lincoln, a two-time loser in races for a Senate seat in Illinois, emerged from the political wilderness to capture the Republican nomination against three political heavyweights—New York Sen. William Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase and Edward Bates, a St. Louis judge.

    But unlike most presidents—and CEOs—Lincoln did not vanquish his competitors. He appointed them to Cabinet positions to take advantage of their policy and political skills, even though each of them initially was openly contemptuous of Lincoln.

    Seward became secretary of state, Chase secretary of treasury and Bates attorney general. In his New York Times review of Goodwin’s book, James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, related the story of Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune, asking Lincoln why he reached out to his enemies to fill critical posts.

    “We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet,” Lincoln replied. “These were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

    The Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury wrote this about Lincoln’s staffing decisions, according to Goodwin’s book: “He has called around him in counsel the ablest and most earnest men of his country. Where he has lacked individual ability, experience or statesmanship, he has sought it and found it. Force, energy, brains, earnestness he has collected around him in every department.”

    But when they joined his government, Lincoln’s rivals did not immediately become his friends. Lincoln endured criticism and squelched power plays, holding his politically fractious but talented Cabinet together. Over time, Seward became one of his staunchest allies.

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