Collective Wisdom Does Not Rule – You Do

13 Jun


Abraham Lincoln was the commander of a cabinet that had enough egotism and intelligence to fill a few White Houses.

Yet, by multiple accounts of those within the cabinet, and those close to the President or his officers, Lincoln made the vast majority of major decisions by himself, and only afterward sought the guidance and advice of his trusted counselors.

This may come as a shock, as many of us might think Presidential decisions are often taken by a vote of great minds, and that the President, though he might personally disagree, will defer to the collective wisdom of his cabinet.

Even in the 1860’s, it was considered unusual in the way that Lincoln ran his cabinet, since so many of his predecessors had run a committee style management in their administrations.

Lincoln believed that the American people had hired who they thought would be the best as President, just like he hired the best for particular departments.

To Lincoln, that meant presidential decisions that affected everybody, especially highly political ones, were his, and his alone, to make.

When a department was involved with a major policy decision, he consulted with that respective cabinet officer before arriving at his decision, but that officer and the collection of other officers never had the final say.

Lincoln started many cabinet meetings by stating that he was not asking for advice, but that the decision had already been made on something, and he would be looking for the best ways to implement the decision or be advised of the difficulties he would be facing.

The prime examples one may look to include the hiring and firing of all of his generals and cabinet officers, the military strategy for the war, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in rebel territory.

Throughout Lincoln’s years as President, many in Washington, and even in the cabinet, thought that Secretary of State William Seward, since he was the “true statesman,” controlled much of what Lincoln said and did.

This was refuted by Seward himself, who said, “There is but one vote in the Cabinet, and that is cast by the President.”[i]

A famous political advisor of the time, Thurlow Weed, reinforced Seward’s sentiments:

“His (Lincoln’s) mind is at once philosophical and practical. He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself.”[ii]

In no other way was Lincoln’s managerial independence more persuasively demonstrated than in his decisions for who actually held a major position in the Administration.

Throughout his tenure, egos flared multiple times amongst prominent men representative of different factions from the very beginning.

Besides the consistent grumblings of cabinet officers that Seward supposedly had Lincoln’s undivided attention, there were also constant complaints that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase was undermining the administration, and that War Secretary Edwin Stanton was, well, being his normally abrasive self.

Each time, Lincoln made it clear to everyone who was actually in charge – such as the time Confederate troops burned down Postmaster General Montgomery Blair’s house during General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland.

Understandably, Blair was upset, but turned absolutely enraged when Lee escaped Maryland without being pursued.

Publicly and privately, Blair launched into several public outbursts about the Washington command structure, in which he labeled them, among other things, “poltroons,” or contemptible cowards.[iii]

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, upon hearing this, called for Blair’s dismissal from Postmaster General.

After passions subsided, Lincoln, in a special cabinet meeting, made it clear to his officers that nobody was ever to call for the dismissal of another cabinet member again.

He also made it very apparent that the decision as to who would serve the President was exclusively Lincoln’s – and Lincoln’s alone.

The results?

  • Lincoln even resisted the constant cries of the Secretaries to fire General George McClellan, who refused to pursue the Confederate Army, until he could find the right person to replace him.
  • Lincoln alone invented the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation, wrote it, and then presented it to the cabinet for advice on implementing it.
  • The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery permanently, was pushed by Lincoln onto his cabinet and then onto Congress when he felt the time was right.

The lesson?

There is a reason you are the leader; you make the best decisions at the right time in your group, and you set the goals.  Consultation with those who can help is advised, but don’t be discouraged by those who say you can’t or shouldn’t do what’s right for your people.  You’ve made it this far, haven’t you?  Trust yourself.

For more on why committees don’t work, see “’Management by committee’ signals final stages of company ‘life cycle,’” by Thomas R. Schori, Ph.D., and Michael L. Garee at”

[i] Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005-10-25). Team of Rivals (p. 669). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid   (p. 289)


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2 responses to “Collective Wisdom Does Not Rule – You Do

  1. regulartom

    June 14, 2013 at 4:53 am

    There is a great lesson here.

    • Lincoln Daily Management

      June 14, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Agreed. One of the reasons we make people managers is that they are supposed to be the wisest.


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