Abe Lincoln’s emotional strengths

Mocked as “a third-rate Western lawyer” and a “fourth-rate lecturer,” Abraham Lincoln turned out to be a political genius: not because he mastered politics but because of his emotional strengths:
  • Empathy. Lincoln could put himself in other people’s shoes. He was rare among anti-slavery orators in trying to comprehend slave owners’ positions, arguing “They are just what we would be in their situation.”

  • Humor. He loved telling about when Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allan visited England and was teased for being American. At one point, the British resorted to tacking a picture of George Washington on an outhouse. Prodded, Allen finally remarked that the picture was well placed because “There is nothing that will make an Englishman s___ so quick as the sight of Gen. Washington.”

  • Magnanimity. When he put three main rivals in his Cabinet, everybody thought he’d flunked his first leadership test.

    Edwin Stanton, for instance, had humiliated Lincoln by calling him a “long-armed ape” and shunning him. Even so, Lincoln appointed him war secretary, saying Stanton’s aggressiveness made him perfect for the job.

    “We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet,” Lincoln said. “I had no right to deprive the country of their service.”

  • Generosity of spirit. Sharing both credit and blame, Lincoln took the heat for others’ profiteering on Civil War supplies and later shared credit for winning the war with Gen. Ulysses Grant.

  • Perspective. The president tolerated errors as long as the job got done. After investigating Grant’s drinking problem, Lincoln decided that it didn’t affect Grant’s ability to win battles. When officials complained, Lincoln told them that if he could find the brand of whiskey Grant drank, he’d send some to all his generals.

  • Self-control. Sometimes, Lincoln wrote an angry letter, then put it aside until he cooled off. When Gen. George Meade let Robert E. Lee slip away after Gettysburg, Lincoln fumed that catching Lee would have ended the war. He stuck the letter in an envelope marked “To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.”

  • Balance. Lincoln took time to relax. In the evening, he regularly entertained friends.

  • Social conscience. Lincoln wanted to accomplish something worthy. When an economic depression hit Illinois in the late 1830s and stranded his public works projects, Lincoln sank into a personal depression.

    Warned that if he didn’t rally he’d die, Lincoln said he’d willingly die but that he’d “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” Only a desire to improve the world pulled him out of his funk.
— Adapted from “The Master of the Game,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, Time.