One of my favorite figures in all of world history is Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Much has been written about him lately: his childhood, his presidency, his assassination (his days as a Vampire hunter). I love just about everything about him. From his upbringing as a farmer in Indiana and Illinois, to his pursuit of education and becoming a lawyer, to his time serving as the President. I don’t think another man serving in that office before or since has had to lead the country through such an enormous constitutional, military and moral crisis. In my humble opinion, he was maybe the greatest type of leader.
Lincoln had a number of habits that I believe set him apart and prepared him for the incredible burdens he bore while in office. I’d like to explore a couple of these here.
#1 – He was a reader
From the time he was young, Lincoln saw the value of books and learning. He read as often as he could, which wasn’t much because of his duties around the farm. Late at night he could be found reading by candlelight. He borrowed books from whoever he could. This was a habit that Lincoln carried with him the rest of his life. As President, Lincoln had the habit of waking up early in the morning to spend some quiet time reading alone reading the Bible. His other favorite book was The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. His habit of reading every day reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “Leaders are readers.” When we read, we learn more about the world, other people, how to resolve conflicts and how to avoid them all together. Reading is a habit of most great leaders. He said, “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
#2 – He practiced humility
It is hard to find a more humble leader in the history of the world than Abraham Lincoln. Even when he was President he preferred to be called Lincoln or Mr. Lincoln. He never felt comfortable giving victory speeches. Even at the end of the Civil War, with thousands of people surrounding the White House chanting for him to come out and speak, he preferred to stay inside and rest, only making a few appearances on the balcony to wave and appease the crowd. He did not like to talk about his accomplishments. In fact, when it came up in conversation he would find a way to change the subject quickly to focus back on the other person.
#3 – He chose to be optimistic
Lincoln once said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” He found a way to see a bright side of almost every situation. For him it was a conscious decision to be optimistic. During his life he dealt with the deaths of his mother when he was 9, 3 of his children, and many of his closest friends. At times during the first part of the Civil War he was incredibly unpopular not only in the South but in the North as well. Nobody would have blamed him for being a little bitter or negative. He chose to live by the quote, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
#4 – He ignored the critics
Mr. Lincoln had A LOT of critics. Incredibly vocal and vicious critics. Politically Lincoln was a Republican but he was very moderate. So not only did he draw criticism from the other political parties, he drew it as well from the more hard-line members of his own party. And of course he was despised by the South who saw him as a tyrant. However, Lincoln made the decision early in life to ignore what anybody else said about him, no matter how hateful. He knew that any worthy or great ambition would be met by opposition and criticism; but that does not mean it still shouldn’t be accomplished. He once said, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
#5 – He took advantage of every day
“Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.” This was one of Lincoln’s most common sayings to his cabinet. He was a man of action. He looked at every day as a blessing and an opportunity to do great deeds. He knew that taking advantage of today meant that he was creating a better future. He was quoted as saying, “The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.” Every day we are given an incredible opportunity to perform in a way that will create a bright and happy future. We create our future as we go along.
#6 – He was genuine and kind to others
There are many stories from Lincoln’s life showing how thoughtful he was of others. One example is the letter he wrote to Ms. Bixby who had 5 sons die in the Civil War! Another comes from the days after Lincoln’s assassination. Secretary of State Seward was also the recipient of an assassination attempt on the same night. Although he was stabbed multiple times with a knife, he survived. He was in an out of a coma for days. Nobody wanted to tell him of the death of his friend Mr. Lincoln for fear it would kill him. After a week he turned to his family and said, “Mr. Lincoln is dead.” When they asked how he knew he said, “If he knew of my condition he would have been the first one to come to my side. He has not been here yet and I see a flag at half-mast. Lincoln is dead.” Lincoln genuinely cared about people and took the time to develop relationships.
#7 – He persevered
Abraham Lincoln had a vision for his life, his family, and the future of the country. He held to that vision with tenacity and persistence. In spite of numerous political defeats, family tragedies, and the constant criticisms around him, he moved forward. This habit of his is best shown through three of his quotes:
“The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
#8 – He believed in people
Lincoln had an incredible ability to see the good in people, even his enemies. His cabinet was made up of some of his biggest critics because he saw that, in spite of their differences, they had valuable ideas and qualities that could make the country better. Lincoln never wanted to punish the South harshly after the war because he knew they were good people who just happened to have a different opinion than his own. In a time when the country was bitterly divided, he was a unifier. Even though he knew his life was in danger at all times, he believed that the people around him could be trusted to do the right thing. He rarely had a bodyguard with him. Maybe that trust in others led him to being so accessible the night of his assassination.
Abraham Lincoln was an unlikely leader. The circumstances around his childhood would not have suggested he would be the kind of man who would one day lead a nation through it’s greatest crisis. But because of his daily habits he worked out his own destiny and carved himself a niche amongst the greatest leaders in the history of mankind. We all have a similar opportunity to develop successful habits that will improve our future. As Lincoln said, “That some achieve great success, is proof to all that others can achieve it as well.”
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