While Abraham Lincoln had the skills and force of personality to mold an effective leadership team from men who just months earlier had been his rivals for the presidency, not everyone is a Lincoln. But every leader can apply the lessons learned from Lincoln's success in handling men whose views and agendas were often contrary to his own.
Be confident enough in your leadership ability to welcome brilliant, competitive people into your leadership circle:
Lincoln brought William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, Simon Cameron and, later, Edwin M. Stanton into his cabinet. All had opposed him for the presidential nomination.
Identify those who place organizational goals first as opposed to those whose personal agenda takes precedence:
All of the above listed cabinet members had reservations about Lincoln and actively pursued independent agendas that, in some instances, were nearly insubordination. Lincoln gave them wide berth because of their dedication to winning the war but when pushed to the tipping point by Cameron and Chase, he fired them.
Countenance opposition and argument but not incompetence or disloyalty:
Lincoln bent over backwards in his support of the procrastinating but politically popular General George B. McClellan only to have McClellan continually castigate him for incompetence and treasonous behavior. Finally, it was McClellan's continuing battle failures that gave Lincoln the public support he needed to fire him.
Stop trouble in its tracks. Dissidents and the dissension they sow will sap your energy and that of the organization. Be quick and be ruthless in eliminating those who can't or won't work toward the common good. Anything less is a dereliction of your duty:
Lincoln failed this test with McClellan but quickly and ruthlessly removed his first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, who had proved to be inept and overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Lincoln fired him but allowed Cameron to give him a letter of resignation and then gave Cameron the face-saving appointment as ambassador to Russia. Leavening ruthlessness with humanity costs you nothing and saves you the animus of another enemy. Lincoln repeated this maneuver with Salmon Chase in 1864 when he, to the surprise of Chase, accepted his letter of resignation but then appointed the bitter Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
On a decidedly smaller scale than Lincoln's prosecution of the Civil War, anyone who has ever held a leadership position has experienced the debilitating effect of the few bad apples spoiling the atmosphere and effectiveness of the organization. As a leader in such a situation, the course of action you must follow is clear and unambiguous – an effective leader will take action to isolate, if not eliminate, those employees who cannot or will not get with the program.
As a manager of multiple professional offices during my 35-year career, I was blessed to work with people who, overwhelmingly, were dedicated and loyal to me and to our organization. At the same time, I was challenged by the few who were incapable of positively contributing to the success of the office. Those who were limited by their ability were relatively easy to deal with. Training, mentoring, reassignments worked miracles for some. For others, the only recourse was a strong recommendation to find success elsewhere. Know failure when you see it and take action to eliminate it.
Dealing with those whose only fault was lack of ability was relatively easy. Dealing with those who were contrarians by nature was difficult, time consuming, and yet, critical to the success of the organization as well as to my success as a leader.
Throughout my career, I found that there were always about 10 percent of staff who wouldn't pull their share of the load or exhibit loyalty to the office. These were the malcontents, the backbiters and the office gossips whose reason for being seemed to be the undermining of morale and efficiency. These 10-percenters were found at all grade levels. They were the lower level staffers who in crunch times would refuse to pick up the pace while denigrating others who worked beyond what the grade requirements were. Worse were senior level managers who while espousing the company line in leadership councils were, in private, persistently fighting to enhance their fiefdoms at the expense of the larger organization. I could never tell if these were egocentrics intent on pursuing their personal agendas or people who just were unable to change their contrary nature. As destructive was the senior staffer who could not resist torpedoing every new idea by chiming in with, “well, it sounds like a good idea, but the trouble with that is.” It happened so often, one could perfectly time his interjection of this sour note of disapproval. He was the true contrarian who, unfortunately, created an atmosphere that stifled less senior staffers and even peers from offering new ideas.
Eliminating these opponents of good order in the organization challenges the skills of even the most seasoned leaders but ignoring them is a decision one soon comes to regret. Removing such people in today's world of bureaucratic safeguards for even the worst performers is a task not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, regrettably, the only recourse is the “Simon Cameron action” -- moving the problem employee to where he or she will be less of an obstacle to overall organizational success. As unpalatable as putting someone “on the shelf” is, at least he or she is removed from poisoning the atmosphere of the dedicated members of your team. Cut your losses quickly and ruthlessly and save yourself from the insidious effects of a culture of contrarians.
Richard L. Claypoole served in a variety of leadership positions for the National Archives, including being the Director of the Office of the Federal Register and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and Museums. He was an editor of the Public Papers of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and editor in chief of the Public Papers of Ronald Reagan.