Working With Difficult People: The Lincoln Principle


A Moral Leader Who Saved The Union

Steven Spielberg’s movie  “Lincoln” showcases the steely character of Abraham Lincoln illustrating how he fought the Civil War AND passed the 13th amendment.  He tirelessly lead with unpopular policies because he believed in the morality of his opinion.

Lincoln didn’t follow polls to set his beliefs, he set forth policies and believed the nation would find “their better angels” and ratify his decisions. Modern life would not have been the same without his statesmanship. His fearless and often unpopular decisions preserved the union and kept the southern states from succeeding.

Put Your Ego Aside And Listen To Your Critics

Lincoln had many talents but a key component was his amazing ability to put aside personal ego and work successfully with people who disliked him and were critical of his opinions.  How did he do that? In the book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Abraham Lincoln placed some of his most obvious critics in positions to give him feedback every day so that he could reach his highest potential and make the best decisions.

Goodwin writes: “Lincoln, after winning the presidency, made the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family, the cabinet. . . . Every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln. . . . The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days.”

In another example from Lincoln’s life, Edwin Stanton, who had been one of his sharpest critics, later became one of Lincoln’s closest friends. Lincoln valued Stanton’s feedback so much that when he heard that Stanton had called him a fool, he reportedly said, “Well, if Stanton said I was a fool, I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”

We Can Benefit From Negative Opinions

Rather than defend himself against the negative feedback, Lincoln effectively managed his anger. Lincoln chose to go ask for clarification from the person who had criticized him so that he could improve himself. Lincoln’s story illustrates that we can form relationships with people who are critical of us—and we can even benefit from their criticism.

Another example of someone who succeed despite negative feedback and intense criticism was Jackie Robinson.    Robinson was an American Major League Baseball second baseman who became the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era.  The movie, “42”, which was the number of Robinson’s jersey,  illustrates the difficult struggle but eventual triumph of talent over bigotry.

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Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW

Contact Me/ 801.472.7134

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More on getting along with difficult people during the holidays:

Another good book on the subject:  Living Successfully With Screwed-Up People by Elizabeth Brown

A great novel written about living with a difficult person (on the surface) is called A Man Called Ove ,written by Fredrik Backman.

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