If Abe Lincoln had a social network

What would Lincoln do?

What would Lincoln do?

Last week, my coach and friend, Moyra Mackie, wrote a good post about the value of management by walking around (MBWA) and about the benefits of managers being available for their teams.

She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.

Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today – one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.


It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Lincoln in the 1860s

In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:

 “During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”

Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)

In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.

Lincoln today

MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.

If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.

He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.

Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did – and would do.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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11 Responses to If Abe Lincoln had a social network

  1. gamblesam says:

    When I was reading this I was thinking… OK, this is great for Lincoln, but wouldn’t he be ticking off the generals?
    I’m hardly the first person to this, but its another reminder that if/as enterprise social becomes more prevalent, we’ll need to reconsider what management and leadership means. Its easy to see why there have already been a number of articles suggesting middle management is the/a key blocker to enterprise social implementation. So, what should management and for that matter/ leadership be redefined for the future?
    Its interesting – over the past 10+ years there has been widespread purchase and adoption of ERP systems, clearly an improvement over the past. ERPs are primarily designed to implement and control processes and provide information upward (on a need to know basis naturally).
    How will decision makers approach enterprise social, also clearly an improvement over the past. Like ERPs, there are costs to making the change, but they are much different types of cost.

    • John Stepper says:

      Would he tick off the generals? Not if he used the platform to call out great work by specific generals. To thank them. To recount shared experiences with them.

      You’re right that middle managers can be blockers, but they can also benefit as much as anyone from working out loud – and from others recognizing them and their contributions.

  2. gamblesam says:

    Fair point. This (r)evolution will be fascinating!

  3. Tracy Sas says:

    Great blog. Lincoln was surely a role model in so many ways. I embrace Managing By Walking Around wholeheartedly. I learned it many years ago working for one of my favorite partners at PwC, Rich McKnight modeled it and I learned a lot from him. Social Media can certainly help us continue to connect virtually.

  4. Jon Bidwell says:

    Keep in mind that this came naturally to Lincoln. The bulk of his law practice was done “riding circuit” to various local courts around Illinois so the notion of going to the scene of the action to get first hand knowledge was natural and comfortable to him. And once he was comfortable with a choice and there was clear communication he would be more hands off. Read Grant’s corrospondence to Lincoln in Grant’s Memoirs–strikingly clear, concise and “out loud”. Stark contrast to Lincoln’s request to McClellan “if you do not intend to use the Army, might I borrow it for a while”. Ultimately Lincoln used the hands on method to winnow out the poor and indecisive managers and replace them with ones with whom he largely had a relationship of clarity and trust. (and in large part where the key theater commanders had the same trust in each other)

  5. John says:

    Another excellent post John. My opinion is the blockers aren’t the middle managers but the senior managers/execs who want every minute accounted for on a graph. How do you include “wandering around” on the project Gantt chart? 😉

  6. moyramackie says:

    Thanks John for taking my original post and really running with it! Some great comments here too about Lincoln’s “natural” ability and his motivation for getting out there and seeing things first hand. These kinds of behaviours can be learnt – I’ve seen it happen. Coaching helps: – )
    It just amazes me that more managers in large organisations – whether in the middle or at the top – fail to take advantage of technology to connect rather than control.

  7. Ambika says:

    Hi John, great article and took me back to the anecdotes I read on King Vikramaditya who would walk around his kingdom to connect with the people directly and gather what’s working and what isn’t ! This was the King incognito like the undercover CEO 🙂

  8. Pingback: A Powerful Sales Technique Courtesy of Honest Abe | Markets And Trading

  9. Nice post, John. I like how you link ‘managing by walking around’ to modern-day social networks. I recently read a book by Mike Klein called “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”. I’ll blog about it soon. But he points to the relatedness of Lincoln’s way of campaigning and modern social networks. His principles were:
    – in each location, create a sub-committee
    – prepare a perfect list of all the voters
    – determine with certainty whom each voter will support
    – to persuade the undecideds, send someone they trust
    – turn out the good Whigs on Election Day
    Mike’s book digs into why this worked then and how this could work in modern social communication.

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