Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Humble Leader - Wimp or Winner?


George Harding, a renowned patent attorney, had been hired by the John Manny Company of Rockford, Illinois to defend its reaping machine against a patent infringement charge. Harding thought it best to hire a local lawyer who understood the Chicago judge who would be trying the case. He picked a young, ambitious, Springfield lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. It was a poor choice.

Lincoln was delighted to accept the work in the summer of 1855. He was paid a retainer and promised a substantial fee when the work was done, and excited to have the opportunity to practice law against well-trained, highly educated East Coast lawyers.

Within weeks of hiring Lincoln, Harding received word that the case had been transferred from Chicago to Cincinnati. This allowed Harding to team up with the lawyer he had wanted all along -- Edwin Stanton. The problem was nobody told Lincoln, who continued developing his case throughout the summer.

Lincoln learned about the change in venue, and arrived in Cincinnati in late September, with his lengthy brief in his lanky hands. When he met Harding and Stanton as they left the court, Stanton pulled Harding aside and whispered, "Why did you bring that long-armed ape here... He does not know anything and can do no good." Stanton and Harding turned away and walked on down the court hall.

Over the next several days, Stanton made it perfectly clear that Lincoln was a poor choice and was to remove himself from the case, which Lincoln did. Nevertheless, he remained in Cincinnati to hear the case. Although Lincoln stayed and ate at the same hotel as Stanton and Harding, they never asked him to join them for a single meal or to accompany them to or from court.

As he prepared to leave Cincinnati, despite suffering what many would consider a supreme insult at the hands of Harding and Stanton, Lincoln told one of John Manny's partners that he was so impressed by the lawyers’ sophisticated arguments and thorough preparation, that he was going back to Illinois to really “study law.”

LincolnHeadpe03885jpg How would you have responded to such egregious treatment? The next encounter Lincoln had with Stanton, six years following the trial, President Lincoln offered Edwin Stanton the cabinet post of secretary of war.

Lincoln's expansive humility helped him achieve extraordinary results. Author Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that every member of Lincoln's administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced than he was. Lincoln placed all three of his rivals for the 1860 presidential Republican nomination in his cabinet. (1) Are you humble enough to surround yourself with superior people?

In his groundbreaking book Good to Great, author Jim Collins points out that only 11 CEOs of the 1,435 companies he studied possessed what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” A Level 5 leader is one who "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." (2) Humility is defined as "the modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc.” Humility helps leaders direct their ego away from the “me” towards the greater cause of the "we."

Humble leaders, like Abraham Lincoln, are winners because they subjugate their ego for the good of the team. How about you?

Keep eXpanding... humbly,


1. Doris Kearns Goodwin; Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2005.

2. Jim Collins; Good to Great, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2001 page 20.

1 comment:

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