An Old Lesson in How to Build Trust, Respect and Support

February 1, 2011

To be effective and productive, leaders need the support and trust of those that they lead, and leaders need to support and trust those under them. A strong component of developing support and trust is mutual respect. Imagine a scenario where you need to build support, trust and respect with someone who feels that you are unqualified and incompetent to lead your organization, who expresses frustration with your decisions, who either takes action or urges you to take action that is counter to your own policies, and holds some personal animosity towards you because you hold the leadership position that he or she sought in the past. How would you deal with this situation?

Abraham Lincoln dealt with these problems with his secretary of state, William H. Seward.

Seward lost the 1860 Republican presidential nomination to Lincoln, later accepting Lincoln’s offer to become secretary of state. Seward’s acceptance of this position was a good indicator of his dedication and loyalty to his country, but I’m sure that he felt something of a sting with the fact the Lincoln was elected to the presidency.

Seward definitely had his own opinions of how things should be run, and was frustrated by Lincoln even before Lincoln was in office. Seward actually submitted his resignation to Lincoln before the presidential inauguration because he found that he could not influence Lincoln’s cabinet selections. Lincoln, however, met with Seward immediately after taking the oath and persuaded him to stay on.

More friction between the two surfaced almost immediately. Early on, Seward made efforts to direct the civil war efforts personally, including undertaking secret negations with the South. During these negotiations, Seward assured the leaders of the South the Fort Sumter would be evacuated, a decision that was overruled by Lincoln.

In response, Seward sent Lincoln a memorandum that outlined what he felt the North’s policy should be to the South, even going so far as to suggest that the United States should instigate a war with a foreign country to unify the nation against a common enemy. Lincoln resisted, but this did not deter Seward from making this same recommendation in 1861, urging Lincoln to engage with England after a British ship was captured with two Confederate commissioners on board. Again Lincoln remained firm, advising Seward to fight, “One war at a time.”

The internal conflict and differences of opinion were great, and the stakes were high. How did Lincoln overcome this problem and gain Seward’s respect, trust, and support?

Lincoln invested time with Seward. He got to know Seward and likewise, Seward got to know Lincoln. Lincoln would visit Seward at home, and both men would take turns telling stories and sharing anecdotes. They would ride together around Washington, reviewing the troops and fortifications. As they got to know each other, they found that they had a shared commitment to the nation and that they had similar political views.

It wasn’t long before Seward became loyal and trusting of Lincoln, supporting Lincoln by making suggestions for Lincoln’s speeches and proclamations. Likewise, Lincoln didn’t interfere with Seward in foreign affairs, delegating most of that responsibility to Seward because he had developed confidence and trust in Seward. Spending time together and getting to know one another help Lincoln and Seward develop the mutual trust and respect that led to mutual support.

There are other benefits to spending time with your people. Lincoln wanted to know his people so that he would understand how they would respond in any given situation. He wanted to understand who the self-starters were and who the procrastinators were; who shared his beliefs and had a strong sense of ethics and values. He wanted to know who he could count on. Lincoln invested a healthy portion of his time with his people so that he could lead effectively. Sound advice that remains applicable to this very day.