How To Give Criticism: A Letter-writing Lesson From Abraham Lincoln
By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
The leadership skill of President Abraham Lincoln plus his letter writing ability evident when he wrote a masterpiece of a letter to General Joe Hooker. That letter is reprinted in full below along with lessons that leaders today can learn from it.
Washington, January 26, 1863
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears 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 skillful soldier, 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 General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of 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 successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of 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 put 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
Did the letter have its desired effect? Yes and No.
Hooker accepted the letter with grace, and looked upon it as a treasure. Lincoln’s friend Anson G. Henry, to whom Hooker showed the letter, thought it “ought to be printed in letters of gold.”
But Lincoln’s admonition did not save Hooker from a colossal defeat at Chancellorsville. He had to be replaced by General George Mead, who took command of the army just three days before Gettysburg.
Hooker did manage to redeem himself somewhat, and played an important role as a corps commander. But he eventually quarreled with General Sherman. Hooker asked to be relieved of his command under Sherman, and spent the remainder of the war as Commander of the Northern Division, headquartered in Cincinnati.
For a leader, there is much to learn from this masterpiece of a letter.
*One, Lincoln understood that honest, sincere compliments always help medicine-like criticism to go down. But there is nothing falsely flattering about Lincoln’s words. They are measured and honest.
*Two, Lincoln was self-assured. One of Lincoln’s salient traits was his willingness to command. He reveals that he knows what is going on, and shows courage in the face of any attempted coup. “I will risk the dictatorship,” said Lincoln. (At that time, several generals are known to have discussed a coup, and installing another leader in Lincoln’s place.)
*Three. Lincoln was friendly and kind. Lincoln wanted to help his hard-to-get-along-with general. Lincoln believed that it’s essential to convince the other person that you are his or her sincere friend before attempting to correct what they do.
*Four. Lincoln had already learned that everybody is not capable of handling honest criticism. When Lincoln wrote a carefully worded but critical letter to his egotistical, peevish general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. Halleck threatened to resign. Lincoln refused to accept his resignation, but used him more sparingly thereafter.
Lincoln’s letter did not break Hooker’s well-formed habits nor change his character—Hooker backslid more than once –Hooker accepted the admonition, and managed to salvage his career.
There’s a proverb that puts it this way: “Rebuke a fool and he will hate you. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” If you criticize someone, and follow these rules, and they still hate you for it, their behavior reveals a great deal about who they are
Study Lincoln’s leadership techniques and apply them whenever you can, especially when you need to criticize someone.
–Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and media strategist. His book “The Words Lincoln Lived By” is in its 25th printing and “Time Tactics of Very Successful People” is in its 43rd.
His training video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations.
He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, call 404-435-2225. Learn more at my website or at the Atlanta Speakers Bureau
www.presidentlincoln.com and www.atlantaspeakersbureau.com
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