How to Think Like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

In honor of the upcoming Presidents’ Day, here’s a look at one of the most respected traits Washington and Lincoln shared that can provide guidance to everyone from the CEOs to product manager and market teams.

They saw the world the way it was, not the way they wanted it to be, or thought it ought to be.

This trait has been universally viewed as a key to their ability to develop effective strategies at two of the most critical points in our country’s history. It gave them a clear and objective view into the situations they faced and a realistic estimate of the strengths and weaknesses of their positions.

This may sound easy, but for many of us our desires, biases and enthusiasm for our products, companies and teams color our perspectives and prevent us from seeing things the way they actually are. Here are two techniques for viewing our markets and positions within them more like Washington and Lincoln; and one from Benjamin Franklin who while not a president had plenty of sage advice.

1. Identify your biases: Most of us are biased in the areas that matter most to our success. A simple way to identify these biases and blind spots is to make a list of the conditions that must be true for your product or strategy to be successful. Examples could include that the market considers a problem a priority to solve relative to other challenges, or that the market is dissatisfied with existing solutions, or that your sales reps will set 10 appointments a week. Once you have the list of conditions, objectively review the assumptions and evidence underlying each condition. The areas where you may be over- or under- estimating threats and opportunities will become apparent.

2. Make reference class comparisons: Individuals and teams tend to be inherently optimistic about their plans and strategies. We expect things to go well, and closer to the best-case scenario than to the worst. Reality usually falls somewhere in between. Most new endeavors will encounter the same challenges as previous internal efforts and/or as businesses that have faced similar situations. When planning product introductions, acquisitions, and sales & marketing campaigns look back at previous internal efforts and at case studies and examples outside the organization to see how these efforts panned out as a starting point for your forecasts. All things equal, your new product, campaign, etc. will likely follow a similar path. If you think that your efforts will go better, faster, etc. make a list of the reasons you believe that your efforts will be different than the norm. Then use Tip 1 to make sure you don’t have any blind spots or faulty biases.

3. Use Franklin comparisons: When most of us look at the strengths of our products or favorite sports teams we tend to forget that many competitors share those same strengths or have different strengths that compensate. To compare your offering to competitors (direct or indirect) make a list on the left side of a piece of paper of what you think your strengths and weaknesses are. On the right side, make a list of what the market thinks the strengths and weaknesses of your competitor are, not what you think they are. When generating the competitor list Tip 1 can help eliminate the biases you may have. Once the two lists are complete compare them and cross out any points of parity and offsetting conditions, e.g., the competitor’s brand equity offsets your better functionality. This exercise helps identify the mindsets and perceptions your sales & marketing efforts will encounter on the ground.

These three techniques will not make you as brilliant a leader as Washington or Lincoln, but they will help you see your market how it is, not how you want it to be. Paraphrasing Franklin, these techniques will make you wise and help you develop strategies that avoids common pitfalls and to set realistic expectations.