On Lincoln as Commander of Commanders


Abraham LincolnMackubin Thomas Owen, a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, provides one of the best descriptions I’ve found of Lincoln’s approach as a commander of a military at war. He called Lincoln “an activist commander-in-chief who frequently ‘interfered’ with his generals. [Lincoln] intuitively understood that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices, because war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. He realized that what appears to be the case at the outset of the war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means.” (1)

This was the essence of Lincoln’s genius and ultimate success. He was above all intensely engaged. With that engagement came openness to learning and adaptation. Lincoln also brought objectivity and with it the ability to make fact-based decisions. His capacity for overlooking personal affronts was not only a strength, but a clear differentiator between himself and Jefferson Davis. Owen said well that “Lincoln never let sentiment or his personal opinion of an officer get in the way of his assessment of the officer’s military potential.” (2)

In management vernacular, Lincoln was a “facilitative manager;” that is to say a man who treated his senior commanders somewhat differently based on their respective personalities and the circumstances at hand. If micromanagement was required, as was the case with McClellan, this he did.

Lincoln and McClellan
U.S. Grant

If he had confidence in a general’s ability to execute a strategy, as was more the case with Grant in the latter half of the war, Lincoln stepped back, never completely but back non-the-less. His skill at facilitative management did not mean that his expectations were not high. Lincoln’s demonstrated decisiveness in releasing generals who did not perform reflected his high standards along with an ability to make tough calls. In my view, he was more than generous in allowing a man time to show his command abilities. The nation needed and Lincoln demanded action and victories and those who delivered rose to the top.

(1) Mackubin Thomas Owen, “Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime,” Accessed online, December 28, 2009, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200902.owens.lincolnleadershipwartime.html.
(2) Michael Korda, Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, (New York: Eminent Lives, 2004) ), 154.