Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative,
a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.
—Franklin P. Jones
Last week, your humble author discussed what a cheap anti-tipping foreign weirdo he is, and the value of meeting others’ unspoken needs—at work and at home. Today is about, and I quote, the “damned fool” Abraham Lincoln.
As discussed in a previous article, brains really, really hate being told they are wrong. Brains crave confirmation that what they already believe is true, regardless of whether it is true or not. When the brain is faced with the fact that it thought or did something wrong, it pushes back hard.
That is why receiving feedback—from anyone—can be so difficult. Even if we ask for the feedback, even if our rational selves really do want it, when we get it we suddenly feel attacked, as if the feedback giver is not simply sharing some information but threatening who we are as human beings. So, even though we wanted the feedback, we find ourselves feeling offended. Blame your brains; they are designed to do that.
I am therefore consistently impressed when I come across people who have managed to reprogram their brains’ innate response to feedback. Abraham Lincoln was one of those.
​When Lincoln was first running for president of the United States, one of his arch nemeses was a man named Edwin Stanton. Lincoln was a lawyer prior to the presidency, as was Stanton. Stanton was well-known and very successful. Lincoln was an average lawyer at best. Stanton’s distaste for Lincoln only grew when they were forced to work together on the same legal team. Stanton dislike Lincoln so much that he ensured Lincoln was frozen out of the case; Lincoln’s work was ignored and he wasn’t even allowed to sit with the rest of the legal team in the courtroom. Later, in a classic example of Lincolnian understatement, Lincoln stated that he was “roughly handled by that man Stanton.” (1)
Their relationship did not improve, yet six years after their unfortunate partnering in the courtroom Lincoln decided to offer Stanton the powerful position of Secretary of War. Lincoln saw some real talent in the man, and wouldn’t let past insults prevent him from taking advantage of Stanton’s talent.
No one would have predicted this would turn out to be a successful partnership. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel, coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea in moment of the gravest peril; Stanton would lash himself into a fury over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan. Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature.” (2)
(Doris Kearns Goodwin is the historian and author who wrote the amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals
, about Lincoln’s remarkable ability to surround himself with people who didn’t even like him—or each other—and still get them to work together successfully. The book is fantastic. It is also so large that in comparison the Bible looks like a pamphlet. You have been warned. But it is excellent!)
Stanton managed the War Department with an iron fist, and did it well, although he still did not like Lincoln and would let him know it by angrily criticizing Lincoln (i.e., giving him feedback) on a regular basis, often in public. Then-Congressman George Owen shared a story that encapsulates what it was like for Lincoln to get feedback from Stanton:
“It is related that a committee of Western men, headed by [Congressman Owen] Lovejoy, procured from the President an important order looking to the exchange of Eastern and Western soldiers with a view to more effective work. Repairing to the office of the Secretary, Mr. Lovejoy explained the scheme, as he had done before to the President, but was met by a flat refusal.
“‘But we have the President’s order sir,’ said Lovejoy.
“‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ said Stanton.
“‘He did, sir.’
“‘Then he is a d—d fool,’ said the irate Secretary.
“‘Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?’ asked Lovejoy, in amazement.
“‘Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.’
“The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
“‘Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool? Asked Lincoln at the close of the recital.
“‘He did, sir; and repeated it.’
“After a moment’s pause, and looking up, the President said:
“‘If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.’” (3)
What I love about that anecdote is that Lincoln knew Stanton didn’t like him—years of nasty interactions confirmed it—and Stanton consistently delivered his feedback to Lincoln in the most tactless way possible. It would have been very easy for Lincoln to ignore the criticisms, or to insist that Stanton give his feedback “constructively.” Instead Lincoln simply listened to and used Stanton’s feedback, regardless of how it was given.
Stanton never shied from giving Lincoln feedback, often in the most insulting terms possible, but over time they developed a deep and lasting friendship. When Lincoln was shot, Michael W. Kauffman writes, “After consoling Mrs. Lincoln, Secretary Stanton was briefed on the overall situation. Then, bracing himself, he went to the back bedroom. As he looked down at the president, Surgeon General Barnes whispered the obvious: Mr. Lincoln cannot recover. Acknowledging with a faint nod, Stanton lowered himself into a chair next to the bed. All eyes turned to him in anticipation of some pronouncement, but instead he burst into loud, convulsive sobs.” (4)
When Lincoln finally died, Stanton was the man who uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.” (5)
Lincoln’s great gift was not so much in his own innate intelligence or talent, but in his remarkable ability to engage the intelligence and talent of those around him. May we all learn from the wisdom and humility of Lincoln, and see feedback in a new, more valuable light.
(1) William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln
, p. 287.
(2) Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
, p. 560.
(3) Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time
, pp. 56-57.
(4) Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
, p. 34.
(5) William Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman
, p. 213.
For Your Consideration
- The most common excuse for ignoring feedback is claiming that it wasn’t constructive. We run a dangerous risk if we throw away the gift of feedback just because we don’t like the way it is wrapped. This is very difficult in practice. Think about times you have dismissed feedback in the past because it wasn’t given in a way you liked. How could you take that feedback and use it more effectively?
- The next time you receive feedback, what can you do to receive it as a valuable gift, regardless of how it is given?
- Who are the Stantons in your life, those people who are talented and intelligent, but perhaps lack compassion or tact? Like Lincoln, how can you work with them to turn a potential foe into a valuable ally?
- In what area of your life do you most need feedback right now? Is it an aspect of your work, the way you communicate, or something more personal (bad haircut or soul-shattering body odor)? Who knows you best in that particular area? Make a goal to ask for feedback about that thing, and commit to treating it as a gift.