Encourage Communication to Ensure Success

20 Jun


Abraham Lincoln learned a big lesson on the importance of organizational communication immediately after his inauguration when the crisis of Fort Sumter was dropped in his lap.

If Lincoln gave up the South Carolina fort to the Confederacy, the Union would look weak, Lincoln would be going back on his inaugural promise to hold all federal properties, several Southern states would go over to the Confederate side, and Northern confidence would be severely shaken.

On the other hand, Lincoln couldn’t fight to keep Fort Sumter, as it was estimated that the Union would need about 30,000 men to defend it – there were only 17,000 in the entire U.S. Army at the time.

Newly hired Secretary of State William Seward felt that Lincoln was in over his head, and that he was taking far too long to act on the cabinet’s advice, which was to abandon Fort Sumter and instead defend Fort Pickens in Florida.

With Lincoln not responding to cabinet advice, and Seward unable to convince Lincoln, the Secretary of State decided to take matters into his own hands by ordering the Powhatan warship to Florida.

How was the Seward able to do this?

He buried the orders in a pile of papers he sent to Lincoln for his signature.

Lincoln, harried in his first few insane days on the job, unknowingly signed the papers, which Seward predicted that he would.

Yet one of the reasons why Lincoln was so busy was because he was directing a covert diplomatic mission to South Carolina to devise a positive outcome from the crisis.

Unfortunately, nobody in the cabinet knew about this – especially Seward, the chief diplomat.

Lincoln’s big plan went something like this:  Inform the Governor of South Carolina that he would be resupplying the fort with food, and then have two tugboats deliver the supply to Fort Sumter.

If the Confederates shot at the fort or the tugboats, they would be “firing on bread,” and look like the bad guys.

If secession was going to happen anyway, Lincoln needed the U.S. to be attacked to “justify” the war in the eyes of all Northerners.

Yet Lincoln didn’t plan for it to be a one-sided battle – since he planned to have the warship Powhatan covering the tugboats!

Of course, when Lincoln unveiled his scheme to the cabinet, the Powhatan had already set sail for Florida, and the tugboats were on their way to South Carolina with no way to reach any of them in time.

The two tugboats attempted to re-supply the fort themselves without the Powhatan’s firepower, and Fort Sumter easily fell, launching the Civil War.

Lincoln and Seward forgave each other, and more importantly learned their lesson not to step into each other’s realms without informing the other.

Eventually the two created a fantastic working relationship based in trust and communication, with Seward becoming Lincoln’s closest and most trusted advisor.

The results?

  • The capture of Fort Sumter outraged Northerners, and the Union war machine started up.
  • Fort Pickens was kept in Union hands throughout the war.
  • Lincoln kept Seward because he knew that the talented Secretary had much to offer – and Seward never pulled a stunt like that again.
  • The two statesmen became one of the greatest “teams” ever in American politics.
  • Seward realized Lincoln’s political genius in having the South start the Civil War.

The lesson?

The desire to communicate freely is built on trust, which Lincoln and Seward didn’t yet have less than one month into their jobs.  Build trust as quickly as you can.  Communication is absolutely critical when what you’re doing crosses over into another person’s responsibility.

For more on internal communication, look at “Importance of Good Communication in Business,” at


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