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President Lincoln preserved the idea of a United States
President Lincoln preserved the idea of a United States
December 6, 2013 7:00 AM CST

Lead like Lincoln

The true meaning of ‘never give up’


So you think you’ve got problems? Impossible to win a job? Not sure if you can even stay in business? Look at this “impressive” list of failures from one of America’s greatest leaders:

  • 1832 – lost his job and defeated for state legislature
  • 1833 – failed in business
  • 1835 – sweetheart died
  • 1836 – had nervous breakdown
  • 1838 – defeated for Speaker
  • 1843 – defeated in nomination for Congress
  • 1849 – lost re-nomination for the seat he had won in 1846
  • 1854 – defeated for nomination for U.S. Senate
  • 1856 – defeated for nomination as Vice President of U.S.
  • 1858 – defeated again for U.S. Senate
  • 1861 – within weeks of Lincoln’s election, seven states seceded from Union
  • 1861 – April 12, U.S. Civil War begins.
Many of us have struggled for the last couple of years or longer, often failing more times than we’d have liked. When this happens to me, I have a tendency to begin feeling sorry for myself, “It’s unfair,” I say, scheduling my pity party.

As parties go, they really weren’t ever well attended – just me, myself and I, so they were pretty lonely affairs. I was never able to cut them out entirely, but I did learn to put a time limit on them of about one minute. This allowed me to lick my wounds, and then forced me to move on quickly.

This brings me back to Abraham Lincoln. He is a great example of a man who carried a heavy load, and experienced more than his share of disappointment. And then, he moved on.

How in the world did he survive such a string of defeats and setbacks, and what can we learn from him? The truth is, there was more to his life than these dozen-plus examples. Mixed in with the defeats were some actual successes:
  • 1834 – elected to Illinois State Legislature
  • 1836 – re-elected, and also received law license
  • 1842 – admitted to practice law in U.S. District Court
  • 1846 – elected to Congress
  • 1849 – admitted to practice law in U.S. Supreme Court
  • 1860 – elected President of the U.S.

Three points

My first point: Whenever we consider other people, we tend to overlook their weak points and dwell on their strengths and successes. But when it comes to us, it is just the opposite. We see our own weaknesses as being ever present, and we gloss over our own strengths.

This is true, whether you’re comparing your business to that of a competitor, your marriage against another, or your neighborhood to that of someone else. We are most critical of those things to which we are closest.

Point number two: If Abe Lincoln had been a mason contractor, given the string of defeats he had stretching over two decades, he might have quit. But the future President recognized that important successes were mixed in with the defeats. Along the way, he became even more experienced. And, he somehow saw the big picture. Which is what we all need to focus on: Remember your successes as you ponder your defeats.

Last point: You can still accomplish great things in the midst of chaos, tragedies and defeats. This year, we celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, authored by Lincoln, which became U.S. policy in 1861. This ultimately led to the 13th Amendment, freeing all slaves, but only was enacted into U.S. law after his assassination, and then, only after a war was fought and won.

President Lincoln preserved the idea of a United States, enabling them to eventually reunite, winning that battle – that peace – through the shedding of blood from thousands upon thousands of Americans of all stripes and colors. His speech at Gettysburg captured forever the importance of those sacrifices.

Despite bickering among cabinet members and ineffectiveness of his generals, he was a huge force as a commander in chief. Without his leadership, the Union would have remained dissolved.

Despite his best efforts, the Union was almost lost. The life and strength of this country hanged in the balance for the majority of Lincoln’s term. The world came extremely close to never experiencing the greatness of America. That greatness would mean so much to them in terms of the help so many countries would receive from the United States in dealing with totalitarian regimes, and the rebuilding efforts that followed many wars.

So, take a look around. Don’t just focus on the things that do not go your way. Rather, look at the whole picture. Surely, you’ve accomplished some things – and some of them were great things – even if you don’t think about them. Your company is providing jobs that help employees care for their families, and you also provide services that get better and are more cost effective, due to the competition you bring into the market place.

Lincoln had his cabinet members to consult, along with his generals. As mentioned, he didn’t always agree with them. Membership in MCAA gives you cabinet-level help. You don’t have to always agree with them, but it is nice to get varying perspectives. There is a saying among attorneys: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”

The simple meaning here is that you don’t go through trying, tough times all by yourself. Have someone you trust who can provide counsel to you. You get that with your membership. The smart contractor seeks counsel. A wise and old saying holds this: “Where there is no counsel, the people fail; but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.”

So, don’t get down on yourself. President Lincoln didn’t. He knew what the end game was to be, and believed wholeheartedly in it. He had his advisors and his counselors, and he spoke with them frequently. They discussed the good and the bad – all of the potential plans of action. President Abraham Lincoln never gave up.

Like President Lincoln (and President Harry Truman), the buck stops at your desk, so the ultimate choice is always yours. But when you consider the total picture – the good, the bad as well as the ugly – you refine your plan and go forward with greater confidence. And, sometimes, that confidence just might get you a job.

About the Author

Gary Micheloni is a working project manager, speaker, author, consultant and coach. He has severals years of industry experience, including a background as a licensed general engineering contractor. For further information and insight on the Full Contact Project Management approach, write Coach Gary at


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