Leading like Lincoln

February 7, 2019

Photo: Participants of the spring 2018 Excellence in Government Fellows program at President Lincoln’s Cottage in June.

Within the walls of Lincoln’s summer home, Excellence in Government Fellows participants discover the president’s leadership secrets.

Abraham Lincoln spent more than a quarter of his nights as president away from the White House. For most of those nights, he lived in a small cottage that is now part of a historic district in upper northwest Washington, D.C.  

During the sweltering summer months, he would commute to the White House and return to the cooler hilltop house at night. It was an ideal place for the 16th president to escape the heat and bustle of the city in favor of a quiet spot where he could think and reflect, according to historian Jared Peatman. 

On a rainy Tuesday morning last June, Peatman and more than 20 participants in the Partnership’s Excellence in Government Fellows program gathered in a building across from what is now called President Lincoln’s Cottage before beginning a tour of the historical landmark.  

Peatman, who leads many historical tours for EIG, offered context for what they were about to see.  

“I hope it’s not just a nice history lesson,” he said. “I want you to use what you learn.”  

Participants visit historical locations during many program sessions for experiences designed to reinforce leadership lessons. These trips give participants opportunities to reflect on their own leadership principles.  

The visits “create a thread for the fellows, one that connects them to the leaders on whose shoulders they stand,” said the group’s coach. Coaches lead classroom sessions throughout the program to help EIG participants reach their leadership goals. “Fellows realize that their issues and concerns are not that different from leaders and situations from the past.”  

On the cottage tour, fellows entered the parlor where Lincoln would often sit and think or discuss affairs of state with guests. The EIG participants stood on the veranda where the president could see the Army hospital that treated soldiers wounded in the Civil War. They walked around the room where he drafted the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that freed more than 3 million slaves. 

The participants discussed what made Lincoln a great leader: his strengths as a communicator, his ability to win support for his ideas, his willingness to reflect on the big picture. Being in the space where he honed those traits enabled the fellows to think about how they might do the same for themselves. 

“The path to self-discovery, it takes time,” said one of the fellows.  

Learning how Lincoln strategically chose Cabinet members from different states provided a valuable leadership lesson for her.  “It’s important to build a diverse team and listen to your people.”  

It’s something she has always made a top priority, but learning Lincoln’s view on that principle reinforced its importance.