Hiring Ambitious People Makes You Successful

22 Jun

civil-war-lincoln-pinkertonAbraham Lincoln hired some of the most ambitious and prominent people he could find for cabinet positions and advisors.

Although that might seem like Lincoln was inviting a group of back-stabbers into his own office to help him run things, he had a different thought.

He didn’t fear the daggers these men might aim at his back, but he did fear a party and a country splintering apart without the advice and support of successful statesmen at his side who represented a variety of factions and regional sections of the North.

Despite a résumé that featured the management of a two-man law office, Lincoln believed he could lead this group by maintaining their focus on their respective departments, and keeping general policy decisions for himself.

Lincoln’s first employees were the other four Republicans who had run against him for the Presidential nomination:  William Seward (former governor and senator of New York), Salmon Chase (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and former governor and senator of Ohio), Edward Bates (former Missouri Secretary of State, Attorney General and Congressman), and Simon Cameron (former Pennsylvania Senator).

Cameron was later replaced by Edwin Stanton (former U.S. Attorney General).

Lincoln also hired John Hay, a future Secretary of State in the William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations, as his personal assistant.

Of course, the most famous hire of all was Ulysses S. Grant as General-In-Chief of the Army, future 18th President of the United States.

Lincoln himself was ambitious, which was probably why he wasn’t afraid to manage the self-motivated people he brought into his administration.

He likely knew that he wouldn’t have to spend his valuable time spurring them on or stepping in to do their jobs for them:  Well-known or ambitious people with solid reputations tend to do their jobs well so they look good for future opportunities – even for notoriety.

Lincoln did neglect reputation in hiring Cameron, but he made up for it by hiring the reputable Stanton to replace him.

Occasionally, he had to rein in his subordinates from time to time, but in Lincoln’s mind, it was easier to pull them back than push them forward.

With a great domestic conflict on the horizon, he must have sensed that he wouldn’t be able to monitor the economy, foreign affairs, legal situations, and other typical things that an average President would; Lincoln brought in these people to be essentially little Presidents who were good for the country as a whole.

Yet, getting the best people may not mean getting ones who work well together.

When you hire talented, ambitious, well-known, brave people from different backgrounds, don’t expect the experiment to go well – unless you happen to be the one ingredient that fuses them all together.

Lincoln was that one ingredient who could do that; he was the chemistry that allowed these personalities to mix.

His personality allowed these people to be their own masters as long as they remembered that he was the one with the final say.

Lincoln was the one everyone in the cabinet looked to for holding other members to their words and deeds – in short, he kept everyone in check.

He took the final responsibility for every decision, every action, and every criticism that came from, or was directed at, the administration.

He was the one who took the time to get to know each cabinet member, and give them the support they needed.

And he eventually earned from each cabinet member their unwavering respect.

The results? 

  • Thanks to General Grant’s determination and Stanton’s brilliance in War Department administration, the Union Army won the Civil War.
  • Seward diffused a potentially devastating threat of war from Great Britain as Secretary of State, and led the administration’s fight in Congress for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
  • As Treasury Secretary, Chase financed the Union’s war effort by establishing a national banking system, introducing paper currency, and selling $500 million in war bonds.
  • Bates was successful in carrying out Lincoln’s controversial legal policies as Attorney General to suppress Southern sympathizers.
  • Hay, along with fellow Lincoln assistant John Nicolay, published a 10-volume biography of Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln: A History, 1890) that allowed us all to see the events of the Civil War and the Lincoln Administration in a much more enlightened way.

The lesson?

Next time you need to hire an assistant, a vice-president, a mechanic, or even a gardener, look for noted people or organizations of good reputation that desire the opportunity to further their own success.  They may cost you more in the short term, but they will be worth it in the long run.

For great advice on hiring see, “Why I Never Hire the Best Person for the Job,” by Harwell Thrasher at


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