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Abraham Lincoln: Nerd! April 9, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Abraham Lincoln is an American icon: an honest, unwavering, hardworking, self-taught leader that saved the United States from self-destruction.  To that list of attributes I can safely add “dork.”

I’ve been reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a superb history of Abraham Lincoln with a focus on his political and leadership skills.  Goodwin’s engaging style presents a detailed view of Lincoln’s life against the backdrop of the early- to mid-1800s.

As I read Goodwin’s repeated descriptions of Lincoln,  I am struck by his, well, dorkiness.  He was tall and gangly, with ill-fitting and out-of-style clothes.  His pants stopped a full two inches above his ankles.  His suitcoat was poorly cut, too tight in front and billowing in back.  He wore enormous Conestoga boots.  His hair was unkempt.  He was a country bumpkin, tongue-tied in the presence of women.  Once, upon entering a society ball and seeing the women therein, he loudly exclaimed to the other men “Boy, aren’t the women clean!”

How, then, did this man win the presidency and save the Union?  Simply put, spectacular communication skills.  Although distracted by women, he was a masterful raconteur among the men (keeping in mind that only men voted back then).  He could captivate an audience, large or small, and understood how to present an argument in a style that resonated with people.  He could finesse his way through sensitive political situations and read people exceptionally well.  He was self-effacing and humble, but never lost sight of his goals.

There is a huge lesson in this, especially for those of us that tend to fall on the nerdy end of the scale.  In almost every aspect of life, and certainly among executive leaders, communications skills are the key driver for success.  Over and over, Goodwin recounts people who met Lincoln, completely dismissed him based on his appearance, and subsequently became spellbound when he began to speak.  His ability to reach people through w ords transcended his innate goofy appearance.

As you work to excel as a leader, keep Lincoln in mind.  Given the modern ready access to better-fitting clothes, nicer shoes, and modern plumbing, your appearance is easy to correct.  Focus your time in formulating your thoughts and learning how to express them.  You’ll probably never find yourself needing to become president or save the Union, but you will find yourself succeeding in whatever you put your mind to.

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