Last month one of my grandsons asked rather pointedly, “Who was the greatest president of the United States?” Obviously, no easy answer presents itself, and a myriad of variables swirl in a vortex of ambiguity when searching for a definitive answer. Moreover, when archival records continue proffering new materials – and revisionist historians come forth with revisions of revisions – to claim “President X” was the best, seems risky. But, since I was writing this month's column during the second week of February, I took a stand with the man whose image and character most impressed me when I was my grandson's age. This president's role and performance have been the subjects of multiple-hundreds of books, thousands of monographs, and innumerable films: Abraham Lincoln.

Selecting Lincoln would seem, at first glance, to run counter to the thesis of one of the most perceptive and provocative essays on leadership I've ever read – “The End of Leadership: Exemplary Leadership Is Impossible Without Full Inclusion, Initiatives, and Cooperation of Followers,” (Organizational Dynamics, Summer, 1999) by Warren Bennis. Once called by Forbes magazine the “Dean of Leadership Gurus,” Bennis proposes that our historical version of heroic leadership has become “an obsolete form of leadership,” one inappropriate for our world of “blurring, spastic, hyper-turbulent change.”

Having discussed this issue of exponential change and decisions fraught by multiple levels of ambiguity in many of these FCBJ columns over the past twenty years, I won't stress this point further, other than to share Bennis's accurate description of most of today's successful organizations: “federations, questors, cross-functional teams, temporary systems, lattices, modules, matrices – almost anything but pyramids with their obsolete top-down leadership.” President Lincoln's 1861-1865 world was definitely one of “top-down leadership” – but his style, I would suggest, transcended that singular description and offers, in fact, principles and practices for effective ethical leadership today.

Support for this point actually is found in this same essay by Bennis, when he asserts that the effective leader “will encourage healthy dissent, and will value those followers courageous enough to say no.” Successful leadership, says Bennis, will be characterized by “some kind of weird alchemy, some kind of ineffable symbiosis” – that is, to repeat the underlying thesis of all my FCBJ columns, a leadership style by which the intangible “trust” becomes both the means and the measure of organizational health and successful leadership.

Though Lincoln did not like the nickname “Honest Abe,” he earned it due to the integrity and trust inherent in his leadership style. Sadly, we now live in a nation where several reliable polls reveal that trust in our politicians has reached an all-time low. To the contrary, even with his political antagonists and opponents, Lincoln was able during his presidency to develop a mutual respect and sense of trust. We all know that trust takes a long time to build, and can be lost in an instant. Lincoln's ability to develop that sense of trust, working, as he was, under the intense pressure to maintain the federal union in the context of civil war, was extraordinary. How he did this can be understood in depth by reading Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald Phillips. Lincoln's mastery of language and his ability to be persuasive and inspirational (or, when necessary, argumentative and manipulative) emerge clearly in Phillip's book. As discussed several times in previous columns, most successful leaders in any era have been successful storytellers, knowing how to use stories to bond with people, to prove a point, to win an argument. Lincolns' skill in this arena stands unparalleled.

By contemporary standards, Lincoln was an uneducated man, but by the standard of any era, he was extremely learned. A superb examination of how Lincoln educated himself is Lewis Lehrman's insightful book, Lincoln “by littles,” with the phrase “by littles” being one coined by Lincoln himself in describing his learning process. (I should note that Lew Lehrman, an old collegiate friend, is best known nationally as a successful investor, entrepreneur, and businessman. He possesses tough, an avocational passion for collecting archival Americana and has written several important studies of Lincoln.) Little by little, then, Abraham Lincoln spent innumerable days and nights reading (and often reading out loud) superb prose and poetry (with a special fondness for Shakespeare, the Bible, and folklore). Whether in formal debate with speeches three hours long or on a memorial occasion in a three-minute speech – or just in casual conversation – this self-educated president became a phenomenal communicator using truth and tales to build trust.

Yes, on an absolutely unpredictable road to the presidency, he lost multiple elections. But, as all great leaders do, he learned invaluable lessons from each of those defeats. And, most impressively, Lincoln, more so than any president before or after, often kept his antagonists at his table, building what the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls his Team of Rivals. The subtitle of her so impressive in-depth and detailed study of Lincoln says it all – “The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” In addition to “his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor,” Goodwin lists the specific qualities comprising that political genius which enabled Lincoln to transform antagonist into allies: “kindness, sensibility, compassion, honesty, and empathy.” That ability to build his cabinet-level team out of men who had challenged him, to breed trust by placing trust, sands singular in our history.

Moreover, this chiseled-faced, self-educated, tall man from the proverbial backwoods, proved able to stay both abreast of and ahead of the technology of his time, as revealed in Tom Wheeler's fascinating Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War. This master storyteller, this amazing communicator with a penchant for face-to-face conversation, knew how to employ the most advanced technology of his time to stay informed, how to use it but not be used by it, to exercise his voice and authority to the fullest in achieving his ever-present goal of winning the war and saving the nation.

Yes, dear grandson, I'll stick with Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Joel Jones is President Emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at