During the early part of the Civil War, the Union was facing great difficulty in the Eastern Theater. Robert E. Lee was routinely trouncing on the U.S. Army from early 1862 through mid-1863. Lincoln tried out four or five Union commanders, all of whom were fired.
As I reflect on my entrepreneurial voyage, I have some appreciation for how hard it must have been for Lincoln to fire all of these generals, who we have to remember were at the very top of the military command system. Of course, Lincoln eventually landed on Ulysses S. Grant and put him in charge, which I believe turned the war to the Union’s favor.
There are three attributes of Lincoln that would make him a good entrepreneur today.
1. He was willing to hire people and terminate them quickly if they did not get good results.
At the time, he was widely criticized by both the public and people within the military for these changes. I think history proves Lincoln understood that time was not on his side, and that he had to make changes quickly to effect a change in results.
Those who would argue against Lincoln as a great leader might correctly point out that he made some poor decisions in changing personnel, but as a leader, and certainly as an entrepreneur, one must be willing to make mistakes, because often an unwillingness to try different things is more dangerous than choosing the perfect path.
For example, my personal belief is that Lincoln was wrong to relieve General Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg, which the Union won. Lincoln was infuriated with Meade for not pursuing Lee after he retreated to Virginia. It should give all entrepreneurs relief to know that even Abraham Lincoln made mistakes as a leader. If you’re an entrepreneur, you are definitely going to mess up.
2. He looked at substance over form.
Lincoln was born poor and had to teach himself the law, and he struggled to make his way in the world. As such, I believe he was particularly good at ferreting out the real from the fake.
For example, as mentioned above, he eventually landed on Ulysses S. Grant as the leader of the Union troops. Grant had won several decisive victories in the Western Theater, including the Battle of Shiloh. But Grant was all substance, and no form at all. He was quiet and did not present well physically in appearance the way that George D. McClellan did.
Where McClellan was fond of military garb and was haughty, Grant wore a plain private’s uniform from which you would only know he was a general by the simple stars on his lapel. In addition, Grant had a reputation as an alcoholic.
In a famous meeting with top military personnel, an individual pointed out that Grant was seen drinking liquor on the battlefield, to which Lincoln replied, “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals!” The point is that Lincoln looked at Grant’s results.
Great entrepreneurs are excellent at identifying talent and recognizing achievement.
3. He was willing to get his hands dirty and dive into the details of key decisions.
What a lot of people don’t remember about Lincoln is that he basically taught himself military theory and strategy. He was so frustrated with the lack of results from his generals that he pored over military history books to teach himself strategy. I’ve always admired this.
It is true that, as an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to delegate, but the greater truth is that you always need enough information about your business to be sure the right decisions are being made. As a leader, you cannot completely give away major decisions to anyone.
Honest Abe would have been a great entrepreneur today, especially in the tech industry, where his funky beard would fit right in.