Kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy can also be impressive political resources

In the 1830s, Lincoln was striving to be the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois, referencing a U.S. senator and New York governor who spearheaded the construction of the Erie canal. When Lincoln withdrew from his first Senate race to help Lyman Trumbull win the seat, they shared a commitment to abolishing slavery. From emancipating slaves, to sacrificing his own political opportunities for the cause, to refusing to defend clients who appeared to be guilty, Lincoln consistently acted for the greater good. When experts in history, political science, and psychology rated the presidents, they identified Lincoln as a clear giver. “Even if it was inconvenient, Lincoln went out of his way to help others,” wrote two experts, demonstrating “obvious concern for the well-being of individual citizens.” It is noteworthy that Lincoln is seen as one of the least self-centered, egotistical, boastful presidents ever. In independent ratings of presidential biographies, Lincoln scored in the top three – along with Washington and Fillmore – in giving credit to others and acting in the best interest of others. In the words of a military general who worked with Lincoln, “he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”

In the Oval Office, Lincoln was determined to put the good of the nation above his own ego. When he won the presidency in 1860, he invited the three candidates who he defeated for the Republican nomination to become his secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and attorney general. In Team of Rivals, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin documents how unusual Lincoln’s cabinet was. “Every member of the administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln. Their presence in the cabinet might have threatened to eclipse the obscure prairie lawyer.”

In Lincoln’s position, a taker might have preferred to protect his ego and power by inviting “yes men” to join him. Yet Lincoln invited his bitter competitors instead. “We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet,” Lincoln told an incredulous reporter. “I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” Some of these rivals despised Lincoln, and others viewed him as incompetent, but he managed to win them all over. According to Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln’s 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. 

From “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” by Adam Grant