Lessons for Presidents’ Day

Senior consultant Signe Spencer writes that Washington and Lincoln shared two key skills all leaders can adopt.

Signe Spencer is a senior consultant at Korn Ferry who focuses on all aspects of competency research.

With most national holidays, you have a pretty good idea of what to reflect on. On Memorial Day, we honor the veterans who have protected our nation. On the Fourth of July we celebrate our country’s independence. And on Labor Day we contemplate the social and economic achievements of American workers.

But what are you supposed to do with Presidents’ Day? Happy birthday, George Washington! Or maybe happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln?

Presidents’ Day itself was created as a way to combine the celebrations of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays. They are the two presidents that Americans of all backgrounds admire and respect; both led us successfully through unique and overwhelming challenges. Hence, their approach can help modern leaders in any organization.

First, Washington and Lincoln both sought out opinions from a diverse group of people. Their teams of advisors were much more inclusive than what was considered normal practice at the time. Yes, nearly all of Washington’s “diverse” group were white men. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of diversity in terms of religion, accents, military service, and most importantly viewpoints on the meaning of liberty. Lincoln’s diverse group of advisors was legendary, as depicted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. In both cases, the teams included members who despised each other as much as any pair of “diverse” groups do today.

These inclusive teams weren’t a nod to tokenism, either. Both Lincoln and Washington genuinely valued open debate. Both knew that the diversity of their teams was essential to their success. After each president listened, he would eventually bring the discussion to an end with a decision (discussions didn’t go on forever), and their advisors knew that—even if their own suggestions didn’t ultimately win the day—their counsel was appreciated and respected. Modern leaders should make that commitment to diversity and inclusion, too. All leaders are looking for the very best talent, and they’ll have a better chance at finding them by casting the net as widely as possible. Beyond getting the best talent, the clash of perspectives can lead to new and better solutions. (For examples of that, read Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, especially the chapter “Two Councils.”)

How did these great American leaders unite their diverse teams? First, they rallied people around a “noble” purpose. Yes, each had a war to win, but the war was a means to a more inspiring end. Washington persuasively talked about how a victory allowed for the birth of a new nation and the ability to govern ourselves. Lincoln argued, successfully, that ending slavery and preserving the Union appealed to the better angels of our nature. Tying the outcome to a grand purpose was a unifying factor, enabling people to set aside personal or regional agendas in favor of the common cause. Each leader personally embodied the shared values, even when doing so met opposition from their own team. In particular, each clearly cared for their team members and also treated defeated enemies with respect and dignity. In modern times, we’ve found that organizations that have a strong, aspirational purpose can help them attract employees and even make more money than their less-purposeful competition.

Both Washington and Lincoln brought out the best in their teams with a visionary and participative leadership style, and that’s as good a way as any to think about Presidents’ Day.