Befriending Your Rivals like Lincoln

Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet. – Maya Angelou

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the movie Lincoln.  I’ve always had an interest in American history and had already read Team of Rivals, the book on which the movie was based.  The book, written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, discussed in more detail how Abraham Lincoln developed his cabinet during his first term by bringing in rivals that had run against him for president.

Rather than surrounding himself with people who would agree with him even when they really didn’t, he wanted a team of advisors that had differing opinions.  He was more interested in having a team that would push back on his ideas, disagree with him and introduce alternative viewpoints than having his ego stroked by yes-men.

That’s an admirable management style.  It’s also a good recommendation for a consultant.  Many consultants develop the attitude that they are the one the client hired to come up with ideas.  As a result, they assume that their ideas are all that are valid.

Imagine a consultant coming up with an idea and the client saying “That’s an alright idea, but I like the idea my employee suggested.”  Any self-respecting – not to mention insecure – consultant would shoot as many holes as possible in the employee’s idea in order to make sure the consultant’s idea was chosen.

Abe Lincoln could have copped the same attitude.  “I’m the president.  The people chose me and my ideas are all that matters.”  Instead, he realized that many people voted for Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, and William H. Seward.  He realized that they had good enough ideas for many other Americans to vote for them over Lincoln.

A consultant who realizes that his job is to be involved in the decision making and facilitating the best ideas for the client’s well being, will have better long-term success over one that is overly concerned with obtaining credit for ideas.

This goes beyond sharing credit with others.  In the course of a long consulting career, true rivals can easily be developed.  Perhaps a fellow co-worker leaves to join a competing top consulting firm.  Many people tend to end relationships based on that.  I once knew an executive who, when the name came up of a former employee that left his company would reply, “He’s dead to me.”

There’s an old saying that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.  But more importantly, how about if we don’t make enemies?  An enemy is hated, while a rival simply works against you.

Ask yourself, is the competing consulting firm really a threat to our existence?  If it is, perhaps the problem is with our firm rather than with them.  Maybe our firm hasn’t done a good enough job of distinguishing ourselves to provide a clear competitive advantage. 

I work for a firm that regularly turns down business if it’s not in our core capability.  Sometimes, we’ll even refer the prospective client to a competing firm.  Are we trying to help the competing firm out?  Not necessarily.  We’re trying to provide our prospect with the best solution for them.  Maybe they’ll come back to us with something we can provide excellent value for.

By befriending his rivals, Lincoln felt he could better serve his constituents. Doing the same as consultants, perhaps we can provide better service to our clients.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting.  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.  He is currently a Senior Project Manager at Geneca.  Lew can be reached at


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