Abraham Lincoln really was born in a log cabin. The fact that he went on to become President – and to lead the country through the most difficult period of its history – is truly remarkable. It is even more amazing when you consider what it took to be an important leader in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although we hear a lot about people like Lincoln or Andrew Jackson or Ulysses S. Grant – people who came from nothing to wield great power – these were most definitely the exceptions that proved the rule. Moreover, the rule was, most successful people started out with all the advantages. Financially, it was much harder to get rich a hundred and fifty years ago than it is today – and if you failed, it was much harder to get back on your feet. There was no safety net from the government or from anywhere else to make sure that you did not go hungry. In those days, it was every man for himself.
With that in mind, let’s look for a minute at some of the things that Lincoln faced and overcame. You have probably seen lists similar to this, describing Lincoln’s failures, but I’d like to go through it again in order to make some important points, which we will take up immediately after the list. As you are reading this list, I’d like you also to think of setbacks you have faced in your own life, and how you responded to them.
In 1832, Lincoln was working in a general store in Illinois when he decided to run for the state legislature. However, the election was some months away, and before it took place, the general store went bankrupt and Lincoln was out of a job. So, he joined the army and served three months. When he got out, it was time for the election – which he lost.
Then, with a partner, Lincoln opened a new general store. His partner embezzled from the business, and the store went broke. In addition, shortly thereafter, the partner died, leaving Lincoln with debts that took several years to pay off.
In 1834, Lincoln ran again for the state legislature, and this time he won. He was even elected to three more terms of two years each. During this period, however, Lincoln also suffered some severe emotional problems. Today he would have been categorized as clinically depressed.
By 1836, Lincoln had become a licensed attorney. At that time, a law degree was not required to pass the bar exam, and Lincoln had been studying on his own for years. He later became a circuit-riding lawyer, traveling from county to county in Illinois to plead cases in different jurisdictions. He was one of the most diligent of all the lawyers doing this kind of work, and between 1849 and 1860 he missed only two court sessions on the circuit.
In 1838, he was defeated in an attempt to become Speaker of the Illinois legislature, and in 1843, he was defeated in an attempt to win nomination for Congress. In 1846, he was elected to Congress, but in 1848, he had to leave because his party had a policy of limiting terms. In 1854, he was defeated in a run for the U.S. Senate. In 1856, he lost the nomination for Vice President, and in 1858, he was again defeated in a race for the Senate. Yet in spite of all these setbacks, in 1860 he was elected President of the United States.
What can we learn about leadership from looking at this chronology? To me, the most remarkable thing is how every time Lincoln failed at something, he was soon trying for something even bigger. After he lost his seat in the state legislature, he ran for the national congress. After he lost a bid for the Senate, he tried to become vice president – and after he lost the Senate race again, he ended up President of the whole country.
Lincoln saw himself as a leader long before anyone else did – and this is the first key to his leadership genius. He may have failed many times, but somehow he always failed upward. He was propelled by a sense of mission, and he was willing and able to do whatever it took to get that great mission accomplished.