Nancy F. Koehn on "Lincoln’s School of Management"

A 2012 re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh as captured by a pinhole camera in Michie, Tenn. Such a camera has no lens, viewfinder or shutter — just a pinhole at the front and film at the back. Images can be soft and require long exposures. The Battle of Gaines’s Mill, as re-enacted in 2012 in Elizabethtown, Pa. No retouching or Photoshop processes were used on these images, with the exception of basic color correction. More photographs are at

Photo credit: Michael Falco

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Nancy F. Koehn for The New York Times in which she examines the legacy of Abraham Lincoln hangs over every American president. "To free a people, to preserve the Union, “to bind up the nation’s wounds”: Lincoln’s presidency, at a moment of great moral passion in the country’s history, is a study in high-caliber leadership."

To read the complete article, please click here.

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In this season of all things Lincoln — when Steven Spielberg is probably counting his Oscars already — executives, entrepreneurs and other business types might consider dusting off their history books and taking a close look at what might be called the Lincoln school of management.

Even before Lincoln the movie came along, there was a certain cult of leadership surrounding the 16th president. C.E.O.'s and lesser business lights have long sought inspiration from his life and work. But today, as President Obama embarks on a new term and business leaders struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing global economy, the lessons of Lincoln seem as fresh as ever. They demonstrate the importance of resilience, forbearance, emotional intelligence, thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument. They also show the value of staying true to a larger mission.

“Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations,” Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, said in an e-mail. Lincoln, he said, “always looked upward and always called American citizens to a higher road and to a purpose bigger than themselves. He did this by listening carefully to those both inside and outside of his immediate circle and sphere of influence. Listening, always being present and authenticity are essential leadership qualities whether one

is leading a country in wartime or a company during a period of transformation.”

As a historian at Harvard Business School, I have been a student of Lincoln for more than a decade. I have written a case study and several articles about his presidency and talked extensively about him to business executives and entrepreneurs. The film Lincoln, which follows his efforts to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment, making slavery unconstitutional, offers ample evidence of his ability to lead. But to me, his earlier experience in drafting and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation offers one of the best ways to appreciate his strengths as a leader.

Before and after he signed the proclamation, 150 years ago this month, Lincoln confronted a string of military setbacks, intense political opposition and his own depression and self-doubts. In the summer of 1862, Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee attacked “repeatedly, relentlessly, with a courage bordering on recklessness,” as the historian James M. McPherson has written. Union supporters realized that the Civil War — originally envisioned as a short, swift conflict — would be much longer and bloodier than imagined.

Northern newspapers and politicians assailed the administration for incompetence. The number of Union Army volunteers dwindled. Abolitionists, who since the war’s start had urged Lincoln to move aggressively against slavery, grew increasingly frustrated.

All of this bore down on the president. When he learned that George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had retreated after a series of conflicts known as the Seven Days’ Battles, Lincoln described himself “as nearly inconsolable as I could be and live.” And, personally, the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, five months earlier still weighed heavily on both the president and his wife.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on entrepreneurial leadership and how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.  She is currently working on a book about the most important lessons from six leaders’ journeys, including Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton and Rachel Carson. Her most recent book, The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times (Harvard Business Press, 2009), examines the people, events, and larger forces that have shaped business in the twenty-first century. 


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