I recently interviewed Serge Phillips, Mn/DOT federal relations manager. We talked about the third book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald T. Phillips.
Tang: Why did you pick this book?
Phillips: I like to read about historical subjects and biographies.
Lincoln is considered by many as the greatest president and leader in our country. A lot has been written about him. He has become such a heroic and mythical persona that his actual persona can be overshadowed. I wanted to find out what really made him such a great president and leader.
Tang: So what did you learn from the book?
Phillips: Lincoln became a president at a critical time in this country. By the time Lincoln took office, seven states had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Ten days before he took the oath of office, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. President Buchanan had given up hope of holding the country together.
Under Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership, he was able to overcome the nightmare he inherited. He held the divided nation together and abolished slavery.
The characters and qualities that Lincoln possessed – honesty, integrity, vision and decisiveness, empathy for the common man, devotion to the rights of individuals, commitment to the Constitution and liberty and equality – are the foundations of his extraordinary leadership abilities that contributed to his remarkable accomplishments.
Tang: What did you like about the book?
Phillips: The book is good at emphasizing Lincoln’s leadership principles. It provides examples of his principles in four categories: people, character, endeavor and communication.
Tang: What new things did you learn from reading this book?
Phillips: Lincoln was the only U.S. president to hold a patent (for a method to make grounded boats more buoyant). You can read about it at this website.
Lincoln was also a very humorous president. He wrote his own speeches and over a thousand of letters.
Lincoln was a man of paradoxes. He was consistent yet flexible. He valued security yet dared to take risks. He controlled his emotions so they remained private. He wrote out harsh letters but did not send them out.
Tang: What part of this book inspired you most?
Phillips: When Lincoln took the oath as the nation’s 16th president, he was relatively unknown. He was the first Republican president, a Washington outsider, and viewed as completely ill-equipped and unable to handle the presidency. He had little respect in Washington except for his most loyal supporters. Even his cabinet members considered him a figurehead whom they could control.
Yet Lincoln demonstrated that he possessed the leadership qualities and abilities necessary to turn the situation around and to save the nation.
As a great leader, Lincoln is an inspiration for many people, including our current president Obama.
Tang: What are some ideas that you can use in your work or daily life?
Phillips: Lincoln had an open door policy and was very approachable. It was relatively easy to visit him at the White House. He enjoyed talking to people, and telling anecdotes. He often used humor to solve difficult situations.
Lincoln was good at building strong alliances on both personal and professional levels. He gained trust, respect, loyalty and commitment by taking the time to talking and listen to people, mentoring and empowering people and showing compassion. He treated his subordinates as equals.
Lincoln was a good leader, because he persuaded rather than coerced people to get results. He made requests or suggestions rather than issuing orders. He discouraged litigation and encouraged compromise.
Lincoln encouraged innovation by making allowances for failure.
Lincoln knew how to solve problems by bringing all feuding parties together to the table and let them work things out, until peace is made.
A good leader is someone who gives credit where credit is due and accepts responsibility when things go wrong.
Tang: Please share a quote from the book that you like.
Phillips: “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
Tang: Has reading this book changed you in any way?
Phillips: It rekindled my interest in reading more biographies of famous people. You can learn so much from other people. It also reminded me of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Parallel Lives is a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs to illuminate their moral virtues and vices.
Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.
Phillips: I like to read newspapers. I read local papers as well as some national papers such as Washington Post and New York Times.
In addition to read history and biographies, I also like to read fiction and English translations of works from all over the world.
Tang: Any other thoughts regarding the book, Commissioner’s Reading Corner or reading in general?
Phillips: Reading helps me learn and gain better understanding of certain subjects. It also helps me relax.
I like the Commissioner’s Reading Corner idea. Through reading the books Commissioner recommended, we get some understanding of what his leadership style is based on.