Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals [LibraryThing / WorldCat] is a good history. It might be considered a biography, too. Or a management book. It’s a little of everything. There was plenty of history involved, to be sure. During sections when the author recounted the armies’ progress, I was thinking the title could just as easily have been “Goodwin’s History of the Civil War.” But at the book’s heart was not battlefield narrative but a deep look at Abraham Lincoln as manager of men.

Lincoln was a virtual unknown when he won the Republican nomination in 1860. A one-term congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate, he was an acceptable alternative to the rival national heavyweights at the convention. The various factions chose him as a compromise since they couldn’t win support for their original candidates. Of course, Lincoln’s appearance as a compromise wasn’t accidental. He had shrewdly positioned himself for that position.

And that’s where the story begins. The men who should have been president (Seward, Stanton, Chase, etc.) figured Lincoln was an easy-to-influence backwoods lawyer; someone they could work with — or work on — to get their way. Each man was more qualified than he was anyway. But Lincoln’s unassuming, awkward, story-telling, push-over manner proved to be an effective tool. With everyone underestimating his abilities, he was able to direct people and events with a master’s precision.

His first act of genius was to invite all his better qualified opponents into his cabinet. From there, Lincoln worked with his “team of rivals”, playing off their strengths and stroking their egos. When they squabbled amongst each other, he was able to pacify their tensions and earn their respect. When they disagreed with him, his consistency, convictions, and demeanor won their support. I lost count how many resignations he was offered along the way, but he even handled those to maximum effect.

Goodwin returns to Lincoln’s management style again and again as she tells the story of the Civil War. The rivals’ reassessments of the man after his death in 1865 — after working with him up close during turbulent years — was remarkable. The simpleton they had signed on to help, in fact, had been the most intelligent one of them all.

You may know Goodwin from her many TV news appearances as a presidential historian and political commentator. Her earlier books include Wait Til Next Year [LibraryThing / WorldCat], a memoir of her father and their shared loved of baseball, and No Ordinary Time [LibraryThing / WorldCat], a look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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