Marketing executives must endure an impossible learning curve. Social media. Cloud computing. Consumer generated content. So many dramatic changes to understand all at once. Is it any wonder that CMO job tenures seem shaky at best? Fortunately marketing executives have a role model for adapting constantly to dramatic change: Abraham Lincoln.
As recounted by historian James McPherson in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, Lincoln endured possibly the steepest learning curve of any U.S. president. During his entire tenure, Lincoln not only figured out how to be an effective president but also a hands-on commander in chief during a war that decided America’s future and tested its moral fortitude. In his book, McPherson focuses on how Lincoln mastered his job as military leader. McPherson is a historian, not a marketing advisor, but he uncovers some important lessons that resonate for marketing executives 150 years later:
1. Get your hands dirty. Lincoln had little-to-no military experience when he became president. But the crisis of the Civil War forced him to quickly figure out the inter-related roles as political and military policy maker and tactician. Lincoln employed the same approach required of today’s marketing executives: a willingness to learn what he didn’t know and then test what he learned through hands-on application. As McPherson recounts: “As commander in chief Lincoln sought to master the intricacies of military strategy . . . His private secretary John Hay, who lived in the White House, often heard the president walking back and forth in his bedroom at midnight as he digested books on military strategy. ‘He gave himself, night and day, to the study of the military situation,’ Hay later wrote. ‘He read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the fields of war. He held long conferences with eminent generals and admirals, and astonished them by the extent of his special knowledge and the keen intelligence of his questions.'” In fact, according to McPherson, Lincoln became a better strategist than many of the generals who fought for him. He spent many hours at the War Department telegraph office dispatching instructions to generals, and he even got involved in personally testing and approving new weapons that gave Union soldiers a technological advantage. Note what Lincoln did not do here. He did not outsource critical knowledge to someone else. He did not let his learnings sit on the shelf — in fact, he took a hands-on role in directing the actions of his generals. Marketers: don’t delegate the embrace of the unknown or else you’ll remain permanently behind the curve. Find people who know more than you do and learn from them. Attend conferences and read research that falls outside your comfort zone. Then apply what you know even if (or especially if) you make mistakes. Do the intricacies of creating a social media policy making puzzle you? Don’t worry — you have plenty of company. Dive in, learn what you need to know, and create that policy. Lincoln did just that sort of thing — and so can you.
2. Don’t get too comfortable. Early on in the war, the Union military was arguably the world’s best-supplied and well trained fighting force under the leadership of George McClellan. But there was a problem: the same provisions that made the army comfortable made it slow. The constant focus on training and preparation made the generals tentative and defensive while the under-supplied Confederate army acted quickly and effectively. McPherson writes that a Union general observed, “‘There was never an army in the world that began to be supplied as well as ours is’ . . . Thus Union soldiers ‘have got into the way that they require and insist upon having an immense deal provided for them. They must have from thirty wagons to a regiment before they will start,’ while the enemy moved twice as fast because they got along with half as much.” It took Lincoln probably a year to learn that the military leaders were flat-out too comfortable and slow. He did not see results until he put his faith in generals who knew how to push their troops and live off the land instead of constantly insisting on adequate supplies. So what’s the lesson here? Don’t get obsessed with accumulating all the budget and resources you need. Learn to get along with less and push your team to do the same. You actually might find yourself to be more effective relying on lower-cost forms of outreach like Social Influence Marketing.
3. Take risks. Lincoln’s appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to Union general in chief was a masterstroke that helped turn the tide for the Union. Grant was an aggressive commander who was willing to do the hard fighting necessary to win. That’s certainly how he is remembered by historians. But at the time, appointing Grant was an enormous risk. Grant had plenty of detractors who characterized him as a “a jackass in the original package . . . He is a poor stick sober, and is most of the time more than half drunk . . . Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally.” What’s more, Lincoln favored Grant over General George B. McClellan, who was enormously popular with the soldiers who served under him. On top of that, Lincoln could ill afford a mistake. The future of the country was at stake, to say nothing of Lincoln’s political future. But Lincoln saw something in Grant that others did not. And he correctly assessed McClellan as ineffective and timid, however well regarded and qualified he was on paper. McClellan had a great resume. But he was the wrong man for the job. Grant lacked pedigree and polish. But he had the right approach to win the war.
Lincoln wasn’t afraid to take risks, get his hands dirty, and push everyone’s comfort zones.
How about you?