How To Write Like Lincoln: Write A Letter That Simultaneously Exhorts and Congratulates
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Whatyousay.com Learns A Lesson About Letter-writing and Leadership From Civil War History
General George Henry Thomas was famous as a great defensive commander. During the Union rout at Chickamauga, near Chattanooga, Thomas saved Union forces from an irretrievable disaster by his courageous and brilliant defensive tactics, and earned the lifelong nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.” But Thomas was slow and deliberate on offense, so much so that he reminded Lincoln of General George McClellan whom Lincoln had fired.
So when Thomas confronted the always aggressive General John Bell Hood at Nashville, Lincoln was worried. He feared that Thomas would sit behind his Nashville fortifications while Hood’s army slipped around him and headed north for Ohio.
That would be a disaster. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General U.S. Grant sent message after message to Thomas commanding him to attack Hood immediately. Thomas refused , replying that he was rounding up horses to make an effect assault, and that there was an ice storm which would make fighting a risky business.
Totally exasperated, Grant returned to Washington from Richmond, met with the President and Secretary Stanton, and made plans to leave immediately for Nashville where he would relieve Thomas of his command, and personally take charge.
Then, at the last possible moment, just as Grant was heading for the station, word reached Washington by telegraph that Thomas had engaged Hood in battle, and had won decisively. Then, in characteristic fashion, at the end of the first day of battle, General Thomas quit fighting just after dark
Grant and Lincoln both believed in completely destroying enemy forces if a battle turned in their favor, no matter how long it took.
The letters that Grant and Lincoln sent Thomas are great examples of how you can praise someone while simultaneously urging them on—complimenting and exhorting in the same letter.
This is the letter that Grant sent Thomas the first night:
“Push the enemy now, and give him no rest until he is entirely destroyed….Much is now expected.”
A few minutes after sending this message, Grant realized that he had not congratulated Thomas, so he sent a follow-up message:
“I congratulate you and the Army under your command…and feel a conviction that to-morrow will add more fruits to your victory.”
Lincoln sent a similar message:
“Please accept for yourself, officers, and men, the nation’s thanks for your good work of yesterday. You made a magnificent beginning. A grand consummation is within your easy reach. Do not let it slip.”
What Lincoln and Grant did are requirements for leadership of the highest order. A leader must not communicate praise and congratulations in such a way that followers become self-satisfied and complacent. If you are a good leader, you must not push your followers hard, but you must be careful not to let them think that their efforts are unappreciated. .
Balancing these two objectives requires a fine sense of balance. If you want to lead like Lincoln, and communicate like Lincoln, you will need to help people feel appreciated, but you must also urge them on to higher achievements. Hopefully you will not have to choose either one or the other. Great leaders, and great communicators, always strive to do both.
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Gene Griessman is an internationally known keynote speaker, actor, and consultant. His 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, contact us at 404-435-2225 or firstname.lastname@example.org Learn more about Gene Griessman at presidentlincoln.com and atlantaspeakersbureau.com
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