Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the modern CEO

Abraham Lincoln

Imagine you are the chairman of a large corporation and the company is fighting a grim battle for survival. You need to appoint a strong CEO to lead the battle.

There is a candidate within the company. He speaks his mind and cares two hoots about the outcome. He frequently quarrels with this bosses. His juniors hate him. But when it comes to waging a battle he is your best bet.

As the chairman, you want to issue him a formal letter of appointment. In that letter, you want to praise him, admonish him and caution him. How would you write such a letter?

If you were Abraham Lincoln, probably, this is what you would write.

I have placed you at the head of this organization. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful executive, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during the reign of the previous CEO, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the company, and to a most meritorious and honorable colleague. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the company and the Board needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those executives, who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is corporate success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Board will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all CEOs. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the company, of criticizing the CEO, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. You could not get any good out of an organization, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

With apologies to President Lincoln, this is an adapted version of the letter he wrote in January 26, 1863. It was addressed to Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who was being appointed to head the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War.

I came across this after lunch with a CEO, who was agonizing over the decision to appoint his successor. He feared that every potential candidate concealed a dagger.

Major General Hooker had told a reporter later: “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”

My friend does not waste much time writing letters destined to be blogged by posterity. If he did and his successor reacted like Major General Hooker did, perhaps, my friend would have faded into corporate sunset in relative peace.

Earlier published at http://www.wrisources.com/blog.html


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