Leadership is not about positions, or not only positions, but more about bringing higher causes to people and to convince them to follow you. It requires self discipline, deliberate actions and mastery of words and ideas. Too bad most people do not see these and mistake leadership for positional power.
With only one year of formal schooling, Lincoln consciously cultivated this mastery of language and expression. As a young boy he would practice public speaking by gathering his friends together and stepping onto a stump to address them. During his days as a lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln would frequently meet up in the evening with friends at a tavern where they would engage in story-telling contests. And he gleaned valuable lessons in rhetoric by diligently studying Shakespeare.
Gradually molding his character, Lincoln also became highly attuned to the feelings of others, including his enemies, and highly measured in the way he communicated in adversarial situations.
On one occasion, he was informed that the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had refused to execute a Presidential order—and further, had called the president a “damn fool.” “He called me a damn fool?” Lincoln asked. “Yes! Not once, sir, but twice!” replied the excited congressman, who had brought him this news. “Well, Stanton speaks what is on his mind, and he is usually right about what he speaks, so if he called me a damn fool, I must be a damn fool. I will go to him now and find out why,” according to a 2005 Time magazine article The Master of the Game.
But changing oneself isn’t easy, so even as president, Lincoln’s anger occasionally consumed him, making him pour it out in letters to critics, errant generals, and others. He had the self-discipline though to not dispatch these “hot” letters; they were later discovered, unsigned, in a drawer in the president’s desk.
Lincoln’s journey suggests that the true measure of a leader lies not in how much we cultivate and exploit our strengths, but in how we work on tapping, in Lincoln’s words, the “better angels of our nature” to use our strengths in the service of a cause much higher than our own personal gain.