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An enduring portrait of courage in the C-suite

A former executive’s 1960 novel, The Lincoln Lords, shines a light on the essential qualities of leadership.

A business leader addressing her team in a meeting

Few words in business are used more often, with less clarity, than leadership. Do we know it when we see it? Should we judge it by results alone? Which qualities are essential, and which are incidental?

Such questions are at the heart of The Lincoln Lords, a 1960 novel of uneven literary merit but considerable insight into just what it is—besides a title and perhaps a corner office—that makes a business executive a leader. The author, Cameron Hawley, was more than usually qualified to write the book, having studied top executives for the purpose. He himself had headed various departments at what was then the Armstrong Cork Company until he left in 1951 to become a writer.

The Lincoln Lords strives to be a portrait of a marriage as well as of business life. It succeeds in only half its mission and falls well short of Hawley’s masterpiece, Executive Suite, which uses the sudden death of a CEO to explore the problem of purpose in business. Fortunately for us, the half of The Lincoln Lords that works is the part about business. (The title is a reflection of the times, when married couples were sometimes referred to by making a plural of the man’s name. Part of the book’s value today is the way it shows what has and hasn’t changed since the late ’50s.)

An experienced corporate chieftain, Lincoln Lord dazzles everyone he meets. He and his wife, Maggie, appear to have it all. But we quickly discover that things are not what they seem. Having always put career first, Linc isn’t much of a father to their teenage son. He’s changed jobs an awful lot. And, most urgently of all, he’s pushing 50 and jobless. “I’m doing the best I can for you, Linc,” says a headhunter. “But there’s one thing I can’t do—change your birth date.”

Unemployment alters perceptions of you. Even Maggie is starting to think the guy is an empty suit who changes gigs whenever the going gets tough. And, for a while, readers will tend to agree. But when he lands a job running Coastal Foods, a failing canning company on the Jersey Shore, Linc surprises us with leadership skills that go much deeper than good looks and a well-cut suit.

How does our hero demonstrate leadership in this difficult context? The first thing he does is to take the job—which surprises some people. Cameron Hawley wrote novels about business, but inevitably they are also about society, and he didn’t shy from social ills—in this case antisemitism. Coastal, a Jewish-owned company, is dismissed by some in Lord’s world as “a little Jewish cannery,” and Jewish characters face discrimination that may shock today’s readers. Lincoln Lord doesn’t share these prejudices. As any good leader should, he judges people on the basis of their character and capabilities, a practice that was unfortunately far less common in his day. The author doesn’t make a big deal of it, but it’s another way Coastal’s new chief quietly shows independence and moral fiber. 

He also demonstrates leadership by acting the part. Even when unemployed, Linc did everything possible to keep up appearances. He had lunch daily at his fancy club, going bareheaded to save on hat-check tips. When he arrives at Coastal, his manner is irresistibly gracious but never garrulous, and his clothes and car reinforce the impression of quiet authority. Don’t underestimate these seemingly superficial qualities, or the many connections Lord has cultivated over the years by attending conventions, giving speeches, aiding his alma mater, and serving on a key government trade committee. Doors open for Mr. Lord, and therefore for Coastal.

Hawley knows that the most important leadership skill is understanding one’s fellow humans, and so does Lincoln Lord. When he takes over Coastal, he goes to the trouble of memorizing lists of staff members and details about their lives so that he can greet everyone in a way that will make them feel important. He instinctively gets Dale Carnegie’s observation that “a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” Everyone comes away from a casual encounter with Linc feeling better about themselves.

Lord’s first priorities are listening, learning, and getting the team on his side. Of particular importance is evaluating the managers he’s inherited, bearing in mind that their personal aspirations will inevitably color their judgment. Lord dispenses praise frankly and strategically, but his trust in subordinates, expressed in all his dealings with them, may be his most powerful morale-building tool. He’s also adept at deflecting unwanted ideas and initiatives in ways that prevent anyone from losing face. Lord is a superb speaker but, in smaller sessions, a great listener too, soliciting views from all and asking pointed questions to elicit crucial information. For all his confidence, Linc knows the stakes and is suitably humble about his ignorance. He recognizes that the people closest to a problem are the ones who really understand what’s going on, and they’re the ones he wants to hear from.

The novel also does a good job of demonstrating the breadth of challenges that buffet any new leader—challenges that go far beyond handling people. At Coastal, for example, Lord’s big problem is that the place is virtually shuttered after having lost the one customer, Gellman Stores, that provided the vast majority of its business. Overcoming this loss means facing broader issues, such as evolving consumer preferences for frozen foods over canned goods, and how to fund the investment Coastal would have to make to build a brand of its own. As a veteran of big business, Lord is used to functioning as a judge weighing options presented by subordinates. But at Coastal, he must act entrepreneurially to invent the options—and redefine the enterprise.

In today’s business world, there’s considerable focus on technical skills and quantitative analysis, but Lord’s experience at Coastal reminds us that very often business is about both simple arithmetic and complex human, political, social, and technological challenges. A true leader has to be able to cope with all these moving parts. At Coastal, Lord’s challenges include machinery, public relations, the role of the company in its community, and the sometimes divergent interests of owners, executives, and rank-and-file employees. Lots of things have changed since his day, but these haven’t.

In today’s business world, there’s considerable focus on technical skills and quantitative analysis, but Lord’s experience at Coastal reminds us that very often business is about both simple arithmetic and complex human, political, social, and technological challenges.

Lord’s ability to juggle these issues is dramatized—if sometimes overly so—throughout the book. As the novel grinds on, careening through melodramatic episodes and subplots, the author redeems himself by bringing to life the subtle interactions that can make or break a deal or a career. It’s fascinating to observe Lord at meetings, reading facial expressions and body language and sensing the slightest shift in the balance of power. Even if he doesn’t know why he has an advantage, he quickly finds ways to exploit it. At one such meeting, he wins back Gellman as a customer. People skills and business skills, it seems, are often one and the same.

One of Lord’s great talents is that, at the office, he never loses his cool. Oh, he can act impulsively in his personal life—as when he buys a pricey foreign car as soon as he’s hired by Coastal—but on the job he’s unfailingly judicious, avoiding snap decisions while exercising care not to let problems fester because of management vacillation.

Lord knows, if you’ll forgive the expression, that there is a right time to decide something, neither too soon nor too late, and this knowledge emerges most powerfully when a revived Coastal finds its baby food at the center of a food-poisoning outbreak. How will Linc handle it? To modern readers, the right course may seem obvious—and despite the very different times, Lincoln Lord finds his way there. As we watch him do so, what had seemed at first a portrait in timidity resolves itself into a clear snapshot of courage.

Daniel Akst

Daniel Akst is a business writer, author, and novelist based in New York’s Hudson Valley. His books include Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess.

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