A Lesson in Leadership from Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s letter to General Joseph Hooker

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to then Army of the Potomac General Joseph Hooker. Seems that General Hooker was a man with aspirations — enough to travel all the way from California to speak with Lincoln in Washington and enough to perhaps not give his immediate superior, General Burnside, what Lincoln considered to be his complete loyalty and support.

Lincoln had a way of addressing needs or concerns while still expressing confidence and hope. This is a great example. There are lessons to be learned here, both from what Lincoln expects and also the way he conveyed that message.


January 26, 1863.

MAJOR-GENERAL HOOKER. GENERAL:—I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. 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 satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which of course I like.

I also believe that you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel with your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.

I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can be dictators. What I now ask from you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.

The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you, as far as I can, to pull it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army 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.

Yours very truly, A. LINCOLN.”

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