Lincoln on Leadership: A Book Review for School District Leadership

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Are you looking for a short read that provides clear and practical examples of effective leadership for personal development? If so, you would benefit from studying Donald T. Phillips’ book, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times, an analysis of the executive leadership traits embodied by the 16th president of the United States. In his review of President Abraham Lincoln’s example, Phillips takes the perspective of one discovering a rich tapestry of leadership skills hidden in plain sight. His approach makes the reader feel like they are learning about the well-studied leader for the first time.

Phillips researched thousands of primary sources including letters, recorded accounts, and interview transcripts from people who worked directly with the President. He also highlighted several of Lincoln’s letters and quotes throughout the book. The use of the actual words of Lincoln both illuminates and validates Phillips’ claim that he possessed modern leadership traits that are applicable in today’s business and workforce environments. Phillips organized the book into four sections that address effective leaders’ ability to build relationships, personal character traits and values, endeavors to lead, and communication skills.

In the first section, entitled “People”, Phillips outlines a critical strategy that leaders may use to build meaningful relationships with subordinates. Specifically, he describes Lincoln’s example of engaging those around him to empower them, build strong alliances, and cultivate a sense of loyalty. Phillips’ second section, “Character”, highlights how Lincoln’s uncompromising policies of honesty and integrity won over many of the strong personalities he confronted. Phillips encourages today’s leaders to align their actions, values, and character to influence the character of their organizations, as Lincoln influenced the character of his nation. In the third section, “Endeavor”, Phillip teaches leaders to emulate the way that Lincoln encouraged innovation and sought generals who craved responsibility and took risks. He also provides rich, historical examples of the President’s decisiveness to show that a leader has to be decisive, set goals, and be results-oriented. Phillip’s final section, “Communication”, puts President Lincoln’s charm and masterful communication style on display to emphasize the power and importance of effective communication for leaders. He points out how mastering the art of public speaking, developing the ability to influence people through conversation, and communicating a strong vision are at the essence of executive leadership.

Potential Impact for School District Leaders/ Reflection and Recommendation

Lincoln on Leadership achieved Donald T. Phillips’ goal of illustrating in clear and concise detail the leadership prowess of President Lincoln. Phillips’ book elucidates the leadership principles that Lincoln demonstrated throughout his life and identified why executive leaders today should implement them. Throughout the book, Phillips frames Lincoln’s leadership traits in a way that aligns to the work of the Superintendent as the chief executive of a school district. Phillips’ work should equip any school leader with solid leadership principles and would serve as a reminder that leaders must embody, communicate, and affirm high values and character. Additionally, Lincoln on Leadership lays out a straightforward blueprint for superintendents to build essential relationships in their school systems and the communities they serve.

Finally, a superintendent would benefit from studying Lincoln on Leadership in great detail to better understand how the 16th president of the United States was able to lead in times of crisis when leaders are needed most. It could be argued that most superintendents would have already cultivated many of the leadership traits presented by Phillips and that it would be more relevant for aspiring leaders or first-time superintendents. However, Lincoln on Leadership can still serve as a refresher for a superintendent and should be read by all educational leaders.


Phillips, D. T. (1992) Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. New York: Warner Books. (ISBN 0-446-39459-9)

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