May 16, 2013

Lessons From President Lincoln to Achieve Success Through Your Network


I've lately been interested in learning as much as I can about one of the most admired Presidents in US history, Abraham Lincoln. The more I learn about him, the more fascinating his success is to me. Against all odds, he managed to convince people to support him and got his network to send him opportunities to become more successful. There's a lot we can learn from him but I want to focus on three specific items at which I think he excelled. These 3 things are:

    • His humbleness.

    • His ability to talk about the same subject from different perspectives.

    • His thorough understanding of audience.

The importance of humility

Many of you have heard the nickname 'Honest Abe' as an endearing way to refer to President Lincoln. People called him this based on anecdotes about his life that survived in history. One of my favorites is a story about his time as a shop clerk when he realized that he overcharged a customer for tea. Instead of waiting for the customer to visit again, he closed shop and walked 3 miles to the customer's home to give her the money that he owed her - a whopping 6 cents.

Another rather intriguing anecdote came from when he worked as a mailman. Apparently, he had some funds left after the office was shut down and the postal service never requested the money back. A few years later, they realized the mistake and although he went through some financial hardships, he still found the money, down to the last cent, to pay them back.

He wasn't always the most successful businessman and racked up quite a bit of debt, especially with one of his business partners. When the partner defaulted, he assumed all of the debt and proceeded with a heavy financial burden to pay it off over the years of his career.

He often stepped back from a political opportunity by allowing others to run for office simply because he felt that person was better suited for the position than he was. What is amusing is that some historians say he might have never become President had he not done this. All of these examples display his humbleness and are likely reasons why people still look up to President Lincoln as a role model, almost 150 years after his death.

Humbleness is something we look for and appreciate in our society. It's something that is admired as it is hard to achieve at times in the light of being extremely successful. This article from The Wall Street Journal speaks of why so many, otherwise nice, people turn into 'Tyrants' when they become very successful and climb up the ranks. It seems as though Abraham Lincoln was able to maintain the ability to be humble despite obvious challenges. This quality became very appreciated to his fellow citizens during his time and still is today.

What does this mean from a NRM perspective? It's worthwhile to train ourselves to remain humble regardless of our success (especially if you follow Mindmavin's NRM ways and thus get there sooner).

Speaking from different perspectives

One of the most famous aspects of Lincoln's life was the Douglas-Lincoln debate during the 1858 Senate race in Illinois. He debated seven times, and despite a shaky start, he won overall. Although he debated successfully, he was astutely aware that each debate was reprinted in two local newspapers. Because these were relatively large newspapers, the stories were syndicated nationally, giving him an audience from coast to coast.. Therefore he made sure to discuss the same subject matter, including institutional slavery, from a different light or perspective in each debate. By doing this, he generated interest from his audience to read more about him instead of thinking that since "they had read one, they read them all."

This strategy is extremely useful in today's world and more relevant than ever simply because it's getting harder to grab people's attention. For example, if you post something on Facebook or Twitter, the likelihood of getting high exposure is slim since there's so much out there and the news cycle on Twitter is so fast. Delivering a series of Tweets or posts along the same subject, but with different perspectives, increases the chance it will get read.

Understanding your audience

Cooper Union

Lincoln's breakthrough moment occurred when he held his Cooper Union speech in New York on February 27, 1860. As we know, this speech was a critical event that launched his Presidential nomination and Presidency. Needless to say, the rest is history.

Few people know that this speech was successful against many odds. Contemporary sources tell us that upon seeing him on stage and hearing him start to speak, people initially thought it was going to be a horrible event and he was likely to fail. This is because he was an odd fellow with awkward physical movements and a shrill voice. On top of that, he wasn't very sophisticatedly dressed (probably the equivalent of showing up in a black tie in front of a Silicon Valley Start-up CEO) and his accent was perceived as frontiersmen rough rather than an intellectual powerhouse to which the New York audience was accustomed.

How did he manage to still deliver such a successful speech? He understood the audience. He had an extremely well researched speech and provided a great historical account on what the founding fathers likely thought about slavery as well as the government's ability to control it. His initial awkward impression soon faded into the background and people began to listen to what he had to say.

His words offered the intellectual stimulation they were seeking, which was something he worked hard on. He spent a lot of time researching, going through historical documents and even after arriving, spent every free minute he had in New York preparing for that speech. Things he did exceptionally well were:

    • Becoming an expert on the topic he was talking about by knowing the space, how to talk about it and coming across as authentic.

    • Understanding the audience and being aware of what resonated with them.

    • Delivering content that was customized to the common interest he shared with them.

By doing these things, he was able to overcome a bias that created an uphill battle to win the confidence of the audience. This technique is available to us today and is especially valuable to those of us facing biases ourselves, be it gender, race, or language related.