Building a “Team of Rivals”: Project Management Lessons from Lincoln

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, no one was more shocked than his three main rivals for the Republican nomination. 

Compared to New York senator William Seward, Ohio governor Salmon Chase, and Missouri’s elder statesman Edward Bates, Lincoln — whose only previous elected political experience was a single term in Congress — seemed the longest of long shots. Securing the nomination was stunning enough, but actually winning the presidency was unbelievable.

And then Lincoln did something perhaps even more unbelievable. Conscious of the need for the best group of advisers possible as Civil War loomed, he persuaded each of those men to join his cabinet. “I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men,” Lincoln said. “I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

It was a bold move, especially since each of those men resented Lincoln’s victory and looked down on him personally. But somehow he made it work. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin highlighted his masterful approach in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

In the years that followed, Lincoln managed to harness the undeniable talents of these strong-willed, ambitious advisers, as well as others. Most came to respect and admire him. Chase’s friend Edwin Stanton, who became Secretary of War, famously called the President a “damned fool” and complained about his “painful imbecility” early in their relationship. But later he stood by the President’s bedside after he had been shot by John Wilkes Booth. After Lincoln drew his last breath, Stanton tearfully said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Embarking on a capital construction project can sometimes feel like fighting a war. The enemies are usually impersonal — time, weather, budgets, market forces — but no less dangerous than an opposing army. And a project team, like a war cabinet, generally contains a collection of AEC individuals who have unique perspectives, diverse skill sets, and different (and sometimes conflicting) agendas. As any project manager can attest, keeping that coalition intact through close-out is sometimes a major accomplishment in its own right.

Knowing that, are there any lessons from Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach that are applicable to construction projects? Surprisingly, yes.  Here are 5 project management lessons from the Great Emancipator:

Identify and align around the common interest. 

Lincoln’s cabinet was filled with able, experienced, and ambitious men. Several still had presidential aspirations — if Lincoln failed, their star might rise. But starting in his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln ably framed the work facing them: the survival of the United States. And he never lost an opportunity to remind both allies and rivals that that goal was both supremely important and non-negotiable. Advisors or generals who could not put aside petty squabbles or self-interested actions were replaced. 

The reality is that architects, general contractors, subcontractors, engineers, and various consultants all have their own goals for any project. Those goals may be financial — maximizing profit margins, for instance. Or they may be time-bound as firms try to efficiently manage resources across multiple projects. But the reality is that no matter their role, everyone associated with the project has a vested interest in ensuring that it finishes on-time and on-budget, and that it meets constituent expectations. Reputations — both personal and professional — can be made or lost. So making sure that those common goals are top-of-mind for all stakeholders is important.

Leverage diverse views and skill sets. 

It would have been easy for Lincoln, given his limited experience in elected office and the unprecedented challenges facing him, to assemble a cabinet of like-minded yes-men. But he resisted that impulse, because he wanted strong minds that could challenge preconceptions and ask hard questions. 

An effective project team should feature healthy discussion about a variety of design and construction issues, with a project owner who values honesty and candor. Respecting individual areas of expertise without unthinkingly deferring to them can be a delicate process, but it helps ensure that all facets of complex issues — and all contingencies — are considered before committing to a course of action.

Know where the buck stops. 

As much as Lincoln valued his advisors’ opinions, he also knew that the final decision was his alone to make, and that he was ultimately the one accountable to the voters. When, after months of debate, the cabinet still couldn’t come to a consensus about whether abolition was the right thing to do, Lincoln himself decided to issue the Emancipation Declaration. 

Construction project owners likewise need to make the final call on important decisions . . . and not be intimidated by a contractor’s experience or perceived expertise. If a project goes off the rails, it’s inevitably the owner left to deal with the repercussions: lost revenue, angry constituents, bad PR, and loss of brand reputation.  

Communicate clearly. 

Lincoln made extensive use of a new technology: the telegraph. It allowed him to receive daily updates from his field commanders and to quickly issue orders, ask questions, or express his concerns. He also voraciously read newspaper editorials and reports to keep abreast of public opinion. Lincoln always preferred communicating directly with his audience, whether it was the public or a specific congressman, in order to maximize impact and minimize confusion. And unlike most of his contemporaries, Lincoln excelled in brief, succinct messaging that memorably made his point. 

For owners, communication is vitally important to the success of any project. Ensuring that stakeholders understand what to do and when to do it is essential to avoiding delays and costly rework. And, especially on public projects, being able to communicate status updates and share key milestones with constituents is important for sustaining enthusiasm for the project and trust in the process. A clear communications chain with contractors, architects, and consultants also gives you the documentation you need in case expectations are not being met.

Monitor performance. 

After the Battle of Shiloh, some of Lincoln’s advisers urged him to fire General Ulysses Grant. But Lincoln replied, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” That wasn’t something that could be said of all of his generals. Lincoln was continually frustrated by Union commanders who avoided battle and refused to aggressively take the war to the Confederacy. Lincoln understood the North’s advantages in manpower and material, and he wanted them utilized fully against the enemy. As the war progressed, he replaced many senior commanders who failed to achieve the battlefield results he wanted.

Construction project owners need real-time visibility about how well their team is delivering, too. Contractors who continually miss milestones jeopardize the overall project schedule. Failure to efficiently approve ASIs or Submittals or respond to RFIs likewise can snowball into significant delays by the end of the project. Poor project document control or budgetary blind spots can potentially shut down a job site altogether. Owners absolutely need full transparency into every aspect of a construction project to minimize their risk and maximize their investment.


Construction project management software can be an invaluable tool in helping owners successfully manage their “Team of Rivals” and bring projects in on-budget and on-time. To learn more about how Owner Insite’s cloud-based solutions promote both collaboration and accountability, contact us for a demo. 

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