Leading Your Customer: Four Lessons from Lincoln and Steve Jobs

Steve Woodruff and I decided to make tomorrow night’s (April 12th) Leadership Chat topic about leading your customer.

Is it even possible to actually lead your customer?  Absolutely.

You can lead your customer; and I believe Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs are brilliant examples of how to do so successfully.  Lincoln is a glorious example of leading when what you’re selling is ideas, principles and belief in a higher good, and Jobs is the ultimate example of leading your customer when you’re selling a product.

Follower vs. Customers

Now, you might argue that Lincoln was leading followers, not customers.  I disagree because of the state of the Union at the time.  Lincoln had a clear competitor – the Confederacy – that his customers could have “gone with” at any time.  He had to convince the Union Army, the border states, eventually the confederate states and the American people as a whole to buy what he was selling!

Some Critical Lincoln-Era History

Remember a few months ago in my post, “Leadership Guiding Principles of a Successful CEO” where the CEO I was interviewing said there were two books that he deemed required reading for his top leadership team? One of them was, “Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times.”

I took his advice and have been reading the book, and it’s a brilliant account of how he led that I’ve never seen written about elsewhere. According to the book:

  • When President Lincoln was sworn into office on March 4th, 1861 seven states had already seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America
  • Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as their leader just 10 days earlier in Montgomery, Alabama
  • A bill in the House of Representatives that would have given the President power to call out the state militias had been tabled
  • the Senate had passed a resolution requesting the War Department to lower military spending
  • President Buchanan had literally given up and actually left office declaring that he was, “the last President of the United States”

Lincoln overcame all of this.  He did so by leading like no one had ever led before.

As the author, Donald T. Phillips, states:

by modern standards, Lincoln’s accomplishment would be regarded as no less than a miracle.  There is little debate that Lincoln was the greatest leader this country, and perhaps this world, has ever known.  He literally towers over more modern-day exemplars.  There is no real comparison.

Lesson #1: Understanding Your Customer

We all know that understanding your customer is critical to business success.  But Lincoln provides us an eye-opening case study of what it looks like when you are passionate about understanding your customer.

Lincoln made it a point to understand his customers’ heart and soul, and what all of their needs were, in order to make time timely, smart, bold and effective decisions.

The Union Army: Did you know that during Lincoln’s 4 years in office most of his time was spent with and among the troops?  He was constantly meeting with his generals in the field to observe or take charge of battle situations, and he even came under fire at least once.  According to Phillips:

He virtually lived at the War Department’s telegraph office so he could gain access to key information for quick, timely decisions.  He met with his generals and cabinet members in their homes, offices and in the field, principally to provide direction and leadership.  He toured the Navy Yard and the fortifications in and around Washington, and inspected new weaponry, all to obtain accurate knowledge of the workings and abilities of the armed forces.  This contact also gave him the firsthand knowledge he needed to make informed, accurate decisions without having to rely solely on the word of others.

I visited the site of the Battle of Antietam recently – the bloodiest single day battle in American history, and I remember a very large copy of a photo of Lincoln meeting with General McClellan.  It didn’t have any similarity to the “photo op’s” of today, just the stark reality of war.

Lincoln made it a point to understand everything his customer – the Union Army – was facing in order to lead them to the best of his ability.  How well do you really understand the needs of your customers and clients?

Lesson #2: The psychology & impact of timing in decision making

The border states: Lincoln understood how critical it was to keep the border states from seceding in those first few years of his presidency.  So, even though he was against slavery, he made the very strategic decision to wait several years into his presidency before abolishing slavery rather than take the risk of losing these states.

Why? Psychology.  He knew that when he took office he was little-known and thus not yet trusted.  He needed time to change both.  Lincoln wanted the country – his customers – to know him, believe him, and trust him before making such a bold and transformational decision and taking them through such dramatic change.

He understood the importance of the psychology of timing when it came to decision making.  Do you consider this with your clients and customers?

Lesson #3: The importance of being visible to, and present with, your customers as the leader

When Lincoln relieved Gen. John C. Fremont from his command in Missouri in September of 1861 he said:

His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with.

Lincoln knew it was critical for the customer to have contact with the leader, and the book reports he spent 75% of his time meeting with people.  He is thought to be the most accessible president the country has ever known…

Government officials, businessmen, and ordinary citizens literally lined the walls of the Executive Mansion in the hope of getting in to see him.  Lincoln turned away very few people, and some he even encouraged to visit.  To a man in Indiana, Lincoln wrote in 1863, “I do not often decline seeing people who call upon me; and probably will see you if you call.”

What better way to know what your customer is thinking and needs than to be visible and present with them?  How available do you make yourself to your customers and clients?

Lesson #4: Aspiration

That Lincoln’s leadership enabled a country to aspire, once again, to greatness is a given.

So let’s turn to Steve Jobs for this final lesson on leading your customers: the importance of enabling your customer/client to aspire to more.  More of whatever is important to them.

Steve Jobs and Apple are infamous for relying on vision over market research, which, as a woman committed to visionary leadership, I find goose bump-inducing.

Steve Jobs leads by creating and communicating a vision of aspiration.

He creates products that enable us as consumers to aspire to something more; but for many of his buyers the aspirations look wholly different.  For some it’s status while for others it’s ease of connectivity with their networks.  For some it’s simply an aspiration for more enjoyment in life and for others it’s an easier way to sell and demonstrate their products and services to their own clients and customers.

So, in my personal view, Steve Jobs is leading his customers by literally showing them how to aspire.

Can you lead your customer by doing the same?


Please share your thoughts below in the comments and please join Steve Woodruff and me as we go in-depth on the topic at Leadership Chat this Tuesday evening, April 12th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time.  We’d be honored to see you there!


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Thank you for reading and for being part of this community – it means so much to me.

You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn.To hire me for Visionary Leadership programs, Marketing Strategy work or for the Social Media Concierge program, email me at [email protected].

Photo is Lincoln Memorial by Robert Hoge.


  1. Wow, this is a truly brilliant post, Lisa. Granted, I’m biased because of our mutual Lincoln love, but still – you have presented some really interesting thoughts here, given me another book to read, and offered a great tie between the Civil War and the modern-day world.

    Awesome, awesome stuff :)
    Marjorie Clayman @margieclayman´s last blog post ..Why you can’t be the next Copyblogger

  2. Brilliant post. I am re tweeting it instantly and rushing to order the Lincoln on Leadership book. Steve Jobs has always been a hero as a customer of Apple because he seemed to see inside my head and know exactly what I wanted and needed. Apple appears to have an intuitive reach to customers.

    So thoughtful. Thank you Lisa.
    Ali Handscomb´s last blog post ..MBTI – the full picture

    • Thank you, Ali – and I think you’ll love the book. Steve Jobs is a brilliant visionary – I believe that is what makes him so successful. Thrilled you joined us last night!

  3. Lisa,
    Even after 150 years we still yearn for more information about Abraham Lincoln. TIME Magazine’s cover story for April 18, 2011 is “Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War.” Robert Redford has a new production coming out “The Conspirator” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is in the works.

    We marvel at Lincoln’s stamina, his willingness to take on “our” cause, even though he was said to have suffered from severe depression. I think people gave him his strength to pursue his quest.

    Judy Helfand´s last blog post ..Whats all this about comments

    • I appreciate that perspective on him, Judy – thank you. And I expect with the 150th anniversary of the war upon us, we will be seeing a number of productions and different perspectives shared. It’s always important to learn from the past…

  4. I think I have found the next book on my reading list. Thanks for the post!

    We probably all wish that we had a leader of Lincoln’s abilities today!

  5. Lisa, another stellar post! Leadership is so often handed to those not ready for the post. A mentor of mine once said, it’s 10% ability and 90% life. Or as Tom Peters once said “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”

    • Kneale,

      What’s fascinating about it is that most thought he was not really ready for it – but his character and his upbringing made him such a strong person and intuitively brilliant leader. We were truly blessed. Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Excellent Post Lisa. I know very little about Lincoln except that he abolished Slavery. I have a new book for my list of Leadership must reads.



  1. […] Leading your Customer – Lessons from Lincoln and Steve Jobs – Lisa […]

  2. […] tonight, read what my lovely and talented co-host, Lisa Petrilli, has written about this topic, drawing lessons from the life of Abraham Lincoln! And, to make your chat experience even more enjoyable, try out ChatTagged, a custom-made Twitter […]

  3. […] Lead your customers. Provide ideas on how customers could realize their potential by using your products and services. Talk with customers about the possibilities for their companies or their areas of responsibility and how you could help those visions come true. […]

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