Avoid Personal Conflict to Remain Effective

07 Jun

048 O-49 1861 02-24 aDON’T HOLD GRUDGES. 

Even when he could have easily stepped over that line from professional to personal, Abraham Lincoln demonstrated restraint.

Douglas vs. Lincoln

Before becoming president, Lincoln was best known for his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas on the subject of slavery, a series of seven nationally publicized events in the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858.

The hotly contested exchanges could’ve easily led to personal attacks on both sides, yet both arch political rivals maintained a certain respect between them that lasted long after the debates; eventually paying off huge dividends for Lincoln.

Right after the war started, Lincoln was forced into a series of unilateral actions that, without Congress being in session, might have come into question by Democrats when they reconvened two months later.

Douglas visited Lincoln at the White House and promised that there would be no worries in getting Democratic support for all of his decisions in that time of crisis; personally seeing to it that members of his party rallied around the President.

When Congress came back into session, all of Lincoln’s actions were endorsed by Congress and his request for money and troops was actually increased, in great part, thanks to Douglas’ efforts.

Radical Republicans vs. Lincoln

After his reelection in 1864, Lincoln refused to brag about how he overcame tremendous odds, or seek punishment of those in his own party who sought to oust him.

“I am in favor of short statutes of limitations in politics.” – Abraham Lincoln

In a speech he made later to supporters who came to the White House to celebrate his victory, Lincoln added, “Now that the election is over, may not all…reunite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way. So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”[i]

Lincoln’s words were severely tested three months later.

Sumner vs. Lincoln

In a fierce senate debate to approve Lincoln’s controversial admission of a new government in Louisiana to the Union, Senator Charles Sumner “kicked the pet scheme of the President down the marble steps of the Senate Chamber.”[ii]

Washington insiders were rather shocked at Sumner’s actions, noting that the two had been previously close, relying on each other often for support and advice, and that this surely marked the end of a long friendship.

Lincoln refused to take it personally because, he knew that Sumner was from the radical wing of the party, and felt that his actions were all business.

Days later, Sumner was found at the Inaugural Ball, on a personal invitation from the President, dancing with Mrs. Lincoln.

To the President, the day again might come that he would need Sumner’s support, and that time he would be there for him.

Hackett vs. Lincoln

Another example of Lincoln being magnanimous and denying retribution was in the case of an actor named James Hackett.

Lincoln loved Hackett’s performance of Falstaff in the Shakespearean play Henry IV, so Hackett sent a book to Lincoln he had written called Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare.

In thanking him for the gift, Lincoln sent him a personal letter commenting on a wide variety of dramatic aspects; the type of letter one might expect from a huge fan of the theater, which Lincoln was.

Although the letter was personal, Hackett “accidentally” gave it to the anti-Lincoln press, which printed the letter and then proceeded to ridicule the President about it.

In his book President Lincoln, William Lee Miller wrote, “… he surely had reasons for resentment against the eagerly self-promoting Hackett for exploiting a private letter for his self-promotion and thereby subjecting Lincoln to a barrage of sarcasm. But Lincoln wrote to him, ‘Give yourself no uneasiness…I have not been much shocked…I am used to it.’  Hackett’s name can be added to the long list of those against whom Lincoln had a legitimate grievance that he nevertheless set aside.”[iv]

Stanton vs. Lincoln

Lincoln’s second Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, turned out to be one of his best human resources – the man was tireless; sixteen hour days six days a week with no vacation were normal for the chronically asthmatic Stanton.

Yet, he was also known for being abrasive, which didn’t come as a surprise to Lincoln because of their first encounter in 1855.

Then still just a lawyer, Lincoln was consulted for a patent case, and traveled to Cincinnati to supposedly, in his mind, assist.

Stanton, a lead attorney on the same case, ignored the Illinois prairie lawyer as if he wasn’t even there.

Obviously hurt by the slight, Lincoln stuck around to watch the trial anyway.

Afterward, all he could remember was how fascinated he was with Stanton’s preparation and presentation of the case.

So when he removed his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in late 1861, Lincoln didn’t think twice about hiring Stanton.

Stanton turned out to be one of Lincoln’s closest and most loyal advisors, and had a single-minded objective to crush the rebellion; known for working with whomever necessary to get the army what they needed, and often getting them even more.

At one point, he reorganized trains and supply lines to move 20,000 troops from Virginia to Tennessee in just seven days to save Ulysses S. Grant’s army when most thought it would take three weeks.

 The results?

  • Lincoln continually shortened his list of enemies, and lengthened the list of people he could work with.
  • Lincoln drew a clear line between professional and personal relationships, and never let one in interfere with the other.
  • No matter how heated thing got, Lincoln never burned a bridge – he knew he might need to walk across it again someday.

The lesson?

Keeping emotions out of your professional life is a very difficult thing.  Remind yourself that sometimes other people are just doing their jobs, too; not just trying to piss you off.  Maintain respect and don’t cut off communication.  You may need that other person again someday – or vice versa.

 For further advice on avoiding personal conflict, visit “How to transform interpersonal conflict into strong relationships at work and home,” by Tammy Lenski.

[i]Miller, William Lee (2008-02-05). President Lincoln (Kindle Location 7132).  Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Donald, David Herbert (2011-12-20). Lincoln (Kindle Location 12712). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Miller, William Lee (2008-02-05). President Lincoln (Kindle Locations 4377-4378). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 4377-4378). 


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