Contact Book Club - Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

TL;DR - This book has a lot of hype.  I have heard about it for years on professional development lists and my main expectation was some type of deep dive into how Lincoln The Manager could corral his cabinet and work as a team to win the Civil War and preside in such a tumultuous time.  The reality was that I felt this read much more like a history work and the management/teamwork component was not thrown in your face.  Nor did I feel like anything there was particularly highlighted - and that was a good thing to me.  This book was a page turner, or at least, as much of a page turner as history works go.  Overall, it was excellent and gave me a much better appreciation of Lincoln The President and that period in US history.  There is much we take for granted back then, and this book articulates how close we were to going down separate, less positive paths.  I would recommend for anyone remotely interested in Civil War era history but would not jump to include on everyone's professional development reading lists.  

The Specs

  • Title: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
  • Author: Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Classification*: Professional Development
  • Length**: 916 pages
  • Accolades/mentions/why would you care about this book etc.
    • Amazon Rating of 4.8 Stars on 3,000+ reviews

My Take - Summary

I was expecting to read a book that detailed the inner workings on Lincoln's cabinet during his presidency.  It turned out to be more of a book about how the cabinet was formed and a history of Lincoln's presidency where the main characters were his cabinet and not a focus on Lincoln himself or the event/history itself.

This was a great read and very insightful to how some of the most major events in American history took place and the team that made them happen.

While I classified this as a "Professional Development" book, it was very much a history book that any fan of history should try.  In terms of professional development, it was a solid read despite falling short of my ridiculously high expectations.  I call it solid because it showed you how one of the best presidents in US history artfully managed a team and met objectives with that team, despite numerous challenges in doing so.  There is a myth that single individuals get things done and Lincoln falls into that trap for many of us because we are not familiar with who was in his support team.  This book shines a light on those individuals and shows how Lincoln hired, how he fired, and how he managed those team members to collective success. 


The pace and style of the writing.  The book covered four years and moved quickly through each major item, highlighting the key facts and illustrating meaningful exchanges between people.  Goodwin always seemed to know exactly when to stop the deep dive and move on to the next episode. 

Didn't like

I struggle saying that this book didn't live up to the hype of being a management and leadership gospel but I think that says more about the expectation itself than the book.  The book really did focus on the entire cabinet as a body of achievement rather than giving sole credit to Lincoln and that is a great lesson in itself.  I think I may just be ready for more of a detailed reading about how Lincoln turned Seward's opinion of him, how Lincoln finally assessed that the time was right to fire Salmon Chase, how Lincoln knew that McClellan was not the commander who would win the Civil War for the Union.  In truth, that is unfair for me to apply to this book and there likely isn't an answer there to even write. 

Thought Provoking Nugs

Most thought-provoking was the drama surrounding the firing of General Scott and the promotion and subsequent firing of General McClellan.  Every business person has to think about hiring the right team and firing if someone does not fit into that team and the constant challenges for Lincoln as he evaluated the progress on the Civil War and his generals' performance is thought-provoking for a business manager.

Knowledge Bombs

There were a few interesting pieces about Abraham Lincoln's son Robert.  While not addressed in the book, I learned about a wild "truth is stranger than fiction" anecdote through Wikipedia.

A few years previous to the President Lincoln's assassination, Robert Lincoln was on a train platform in New York City when a crowd surged, forcing him towards the gap between the train and platform.  Edwin Booth reached out and grabbed him and pulled him up and away from the gap, saving him from injury or death.  Lincoln knew Booth's face because Booth was one of the most famous actors in America.  In 1865, Edwin's brother, John Wilkes, shot Robert's father at Ford's Theater.  Edwin, who was a staunch Union supporter, is said to have commented that saving Robert's life in the years prior to the Civil War was the only bit of peace he could take from the whole situation. 

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