Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

One of my friends, a man for whom I have immense respect because of his wisdom and broad reading interests, purchased a copy of Team of Rivals at my suggestion. Off he went, new book in hand. I was eager to hear his verdict.

Let me repeat, word for word, his reaction to Team of Rivals. “Outside of the Bible,” he stated in an email, “the Goodwin book may be the best I’ve ever read.”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a fairly strong endorsement.

My guess is that you’ll have a similar reaction when you read Team of Rivals. I certainly did. Goodwin’s work is the best book on Lincoln that I’ve read, and I’ve plowed through quite a few. My assertion isn’t meant to denigrate David Donald, Gabor Boritt, T. Harry Williams, Stephen Oates, Ronald White, Jr., or Benjamin Thomas. They and many other Lincoln scholars have produced outstanding books. Goodwin, though, exceeds them in the scale of her achievement.

Team of Rivals is an exploration of Lincoln’s relationship with three politicians. Lincoln interacted with the trio—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates (and to a lesser extent, Edwin Stanton)—from the 1840s through his death in 1865. All of the men at one time or another saw Lincoln as a rival to their own aspirations for greater power and status in government. All of the men became members of Lincoln’s Cabinet upon his election to the Presidency. Because of his slender victory in a four-way presidential race, Lincoln opted to bring these rivals into his Cabinet in order to keep an eye on them. He also believed that the young Republican Party could best govern in 1861 if its major leaders were on the same team.

Some of you may wonder what possibly is new that could be said or written about Lincoln. Goodwin achieves the near-impossibility of bringing fresh information and interpretations to this monumental figure in American history. Goodwin’s approach to Lincoln includes the perspectives of the families of Seward, Chase, and Bates. Kate Chase (a daughter) and Francis Seward (a wife), for example, wrote extensively about their father/husband’s experiences with Lincoln. Goodwin interweaves these family accounts into an exploration of Lincoln’s relationship with the trio of rivals on an intensely personal level. One has the chance to see Lincoln as someone with relationships who also happens to be a politician. The standard Lincoln scholarship treats Lincoln in reverse fashion—as a politician who only occasionally engages in personal relationships. It is the personal, the relational, where Goodwin crafts a Lincoln story that is unique and insightful, a one-of-a-kind achievement.

I won’t try to list the multitude of anecdotes about Lincoln’s relationships that I found fascinating. Suffice to say, the list would be lengthy. I prefer to confine my attention here to the title, something that cuts to the most applicable takeaway from the book. As you know, my approach to history emphasizes takeaways, those things that you can use to enhance your own life.

The team led by Abraham Lincoln was his Cabinet. We might find other formulations of teams in Lincoln’s experience as a leader; the generals who served under him, the soldiers under his overall command, or the primary Republican leaders in Congress, to name three. But for our purposes, Lincoln’s Cabinet is the most easily recognizable team in his realm of leadership.

Lincoln’s experience as this team’s leader is compelling and violates many of our twenty-first century dictums on team leadership. First, Lincoln brought some of his fiercest rivals into his team. We want diversity today, but not in the sense that team members hold and pursue diverse opinions on who should be leader. Second, Lincoln often held team meetings that rambled in topic and tone. Most of us would dismiss such team meetings as a waste of our valuable time; where, for goodness sake, is the agenda? Third, Lincoln tolerated some of the most offensive, disrespectful, and “un-team-like” statements imaginable by his team members. In our Good To Great world of work we would regard such behavior as indicative of having the “wrong people on the bus.” Finally, Lincoln as a rule hated, absolutely hated, to tell people “no” and to fire them. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times in my conversations with leaders today: accountability is paramount and if it’s in the best interest of the group to terminate, we terminate.

And yet, through it all, Lincoln somehow succeeded as a leader. You could challenge me here and say that the outcome, victory for the Union, guarantees that Lincoln is seen as successful. If the Confederacy had won the Civil War, we wouldn’t be describing Lincoln as a successful team leader.

I suppose. The larger point, though, is that the victory and Lincoln’s team leadership were interdependent. Each helped the other. Lincoln’s ability to lead his fractious team was a vital contribution to the Union’s war effort, was indeed a significant reason why the Union won.

I have an additional measurement of Lincoln’s effectiveness as a team leader. The men who were Lincoln’s rivals actually became Lincoln’s friends (excluding Chase but including Stanton). They disdained, even despised him when he became President. As they got to know him on a daily basis, however, they grew to like and even before his assassination and martyrdom, love him. Lincoln’s positive personal conduct overwhelmed the negative views that his rivals had of him. And that, dear reader, is a powerful measurement of team leadership. How many of us can honestly say that people who were at one time our rivals and opponents actually became our friends and supporters because of the daily behavior we displayed? Ask yourself that question and then list the people who you’ve transformed from rival to admirer. For me, at least, it’s an embarrassingly short list.

You’ve got to remember another achievement of Lincoln’s in this regard. He did not change his rivals’ minds through popularity. In other words, he didn’t decide policy because he thought it would make him popular with Chase, Seward or someone else. No, Lincoln used the power of his example to change his rivals. In our vernacular, we might say he “walked the talk.” Sorry, I know it’s a cliché but it might drive home the point: Lincoln’s conduct and deeds, more than simply his words and rhetoric (persuasive though they were), drew the men closer to him, made them part of a functioning team.

Again, I urge you to ask yourself if your team members would say that your daily conduct, especially in times of despair, brings them closer to you.

The members of Lincoln’s Cabinet team commented on two aspects of his behavior. They were awestruck by his gift of forgiveness, humility, and graciousness. Lincoln seldom, if ever, displayed a desire to avenge his many critics and opponents. He was always quick to accept blame himself and to praise others. In addition, Lincoln’s team members saw their leader endure trials and setbacks that would have destroyed other people. In these difficulties Lincoln acted the same as he did in better days—still the same loving, visionary, and persistent man. It didn’t mean that Lincoln was always happy; in many trying times Lincoln lapsed into melancholy. But his sadness didn’t cause Lincoln’s other characteristics to be anything different from what were on a daily basis. He remained kind, gentle, and sympathetic. These were the two pillars on which Lincoln built his team.

Team members watch their leader every day. They see his or her behavior and draw conclusions from it. The behavior that is most personal—that is, the stuff which strikes most deeply in human relationships—will have the greatest imprint on their hearts and minds. Abraham Lincoln showed that personal conduct can transform team members from rivals to allies.