Build a Team of Rivals

Jun 10, 2021

The 1860 Republican presidential race was contentious. The frontrunner was William H. Seward, Senator and former Governor from New York. Close behind were Salmon P. Chase, Governor of Ohio, and Missouri Attorney General Edward Bates. There was also the former Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.  

Lincoln clinched the nomination, and ultimately the presidency. Then he did the unimaginable. He built his cabinet with his three fiercest rivals. Seward became Secretary of State, Bates became Attorney General, and Chase became Secretary of the Treasury.

Things didn't always go smoothly. Heated cabinet decisions such as how to handle the first state that seceded shortly after Lincoln's election and the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation divided the cabinet. Seward schemed, unsuccessfully, against Lincoln from within the cabinet, desiring to run as the Republican nominee in 1864.

How did Lincoln unite his team of rivals? Empathy, compassion, kindness, honesty all played a role. Lincoln accepted responsibility when things when wrong and shared credit when things went well. He acknowledged his mistakes immediately. He spent time building relationships with every cabinet member.

Growing up in Lincoln's homeland of Illinois, it was a right of passage for school children to visit Lincoln's house. At the time, I didn't appreciate the magnitude of it all. I thought that Lincoln lived in a period where he could shape the country and my generation had been left with more modest ambitions. Ironically, a young Lincoln felt the same way about the founding fathers. Now, it's clear to me that there are timeless lessons that can be learned. Not to mention that our country still faces many of the same issues that Lincoln's country faced.

Building a team of rivals makes us all better. It sharpens our thinking. Seward, who was originally Lincoln's biggest rival, who tried to unsuccessfully unseat him, later in life wrote to his wife, "The President is the best of us".