It is difficult at times to separate the mythical image of Abraham Lincoln from the actual person who led under some of the most challenging circumstances to face any leader of the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a couple of books that I can recommend both for what they help us to understand of the context of Lincoln’s time and how he thought and acted.

David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” is a very good one-volume biography first published in 1996 and it provides an account from cradle to grave of the 16th U.S. President. The other is “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin from 2005. Although it also spends time on Lincoln’s upbringing and youth, it also paints a vivid picture of the men who contested, with Lincoln, for the nomination of the then-young Republican party for the Presidential election of 1860. This provides an additional set of valuable insights into how Lincoln led others; writes Goodwin:

This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of powers inherent in the presidency, an unparalleled ability to keep his governing coalition intact, a tough-minded appreciation of the need to protect his presidential prerogatives, and a masterful sense of timing. His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality — kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy — can also be impressive political resources.

Understanding why and how Lincoln led as he did is thus not just an understanding of a historical figure, but also a source of insight into how we can choose to act, lead and decide.