When Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn started writing her new book, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” she had little idea how timely it might be. She started writing it more than 10 years ago, and had wanted it published earlier, but its release this month — nearly a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, during a series of natural disasters, and amid concerns about nuclear war, climate change and income inequality — seems particularly relevant. “I guess the universe wanted it now,” she said in an interview.
The book brings together case studies of five historic leaders — Abraham Lincoln, explorer Ernest Shackleton, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrick Bonhoeffer and conservationist Rachel Carson — to examine how the crises they faced helped shape the leaders they became. One of Koehn’s themes — that leaders are made, not born — is told through their stories. For business leaders who prefer to skip the advice-filled management genre for biographies of famous leaders, the book merges leadership insights and historic narratives in a direct and explicit way.
OnLeadership’s Jena McGregor spoke with Koehn about her new book, her other favorite leadership biographies and what President Trump could learn from the historic figures she chronicled. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re a Harvard Business School professor. Yet your favorite definition of ‘good leadership’ comes from the late fiction author David Foster Wallace in a 2000 article about John McCain. What was it?
To use Wallace’s definition, real leaders — he means courageous leaders or effective leaders — are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own weaknesses, selfishness, laziness and fears and get us to do harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. There’s just a deep, absolutely unassailable ring of truth to that. From a historian’s standpoint, every single leader that’s done something decent and important in the world fits that definition to a T.
What was your goal with this book?
The greenhouse that my work grew up in is the Harvard Business School. That is a place where a historian is a strange animal — a welcome but strange animal. Unlike in a traditional history department, I am and encourage my students to be unabashedly functionalist in what we make of history. My job is to reconstruct, with historical accuracy, what happened, but my job is also to teach — to people who are ultimate pragmatists — how to go out and use what they learn about the past to understand the present and in many cases, make smart bets on the future.
You discuss how Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer whose ship became trapped in ice, chose his team, with qualities like optimism, cheerfulness, and a sense of humor being more important than their skills. How important was that for him in the end?
There’s this expression in modern parlance that [Shackleton] would have understood but wouldn’t have used: “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” He knows that he’s got to have people who can respond on a dime to whatever happens in an environment that is full of unexpected and life-threatening happenings.
I know this story like the age spots on my hand. But every time I think about it I am struck anew by how important this particular aspect was to him actually accomplishing this difficult mission. The fact that he picked people who he thought were optimistic, who he thought could roll with the punches, who he thought were strong and resilient, I think had a huge impact on why this thing didn’t self destruct.
If we’re just going to hire people by looking at their resume, and what they’ve done and what they’re teed up to do in terms of skill, we’re missing a big piece we need, which is adaptability. How do we work together as a team? How do we work together as a unit or a small group to deal with whatever’s coming at us? This aspect of Shackleton is an important lesson for today.
President Trump’s Cabinet has been described as being plagued with warring factions. What do you see when you look at his Cabinet and the way he has built his team at such a turbulent time in Washington?
I see a massive “Game of Thrones” that shows no signs of abating. With every machination, every firecracker of discord and dissension that explodes among the president and his advisers or Cabinet, the country gets farther from good work being done. One of the reasons that team under Shackleton worked so cohesively is that Shackleton not only hired well — he also spent a great deal of time, one person by one person and in small groups, managing that cohesion. Everything from how he kept all his doubting Thomases in his tent, because he doesn’t want to spread the contagion of doubt, to who he talks with first before he issues an order — these are things Trump could learn.
You devote a chapter to Abraham Lincoln. What more could there could possibly be to say about Lincoln’s leadership after all that has been written about him?
One thing that is really important, which comes out of Lincoln’s ability to use his emotional awareness and discipline in a perfect storm, is the power of doing nothing when the emotional temperature is really high.
After Gettsyburg, General George Meade decides not to follow [Robert E.] Lee and his defeated and much reduced army. He could have done that but he made a tactical decision that his men were too tired. Lincoln gets wind of it and he’s absolutely beside himself. He’s just exploding. He writes a very hot-under-the-collar, 3.5 page letter to Meade that really just rips him up and down for not going after Lee. It’s a Twitter rage, right?
But then Lincoln — I can just see him in his study — pauses, writes on the front of it ‘To George Meade, never sent, July 1863,’ and it’s found after his death. I teach this all the time to executives: How do we get less reactive? What do we do with our smartphones that we shouldn’t be doing? If Lincoln had email and had just hit send, the course of the war could have been different. At that time Lincoln didn’t have Sherman. He didn’t have Grant. He had alienated half the West Point brass. He didn’t have any more capital with the men that were available to lead the major Union armies. He couldn’t afford to go much lower in the ranks of eligible generals.
But he recognized that and took a yoga breath and he did nothing. It’s so important. Not only are you not making your best decisions, not only are you not thinking clearly, but just sending out your emotional reaction in the heat of the moment actually makes the situation worse.
The new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, certainly has his work cut out for him leading through that company’s crisis. How would you advise him?
To untie the knots that Uber is in. He went to London and apologized and said we really want to work with you, we really want a relationship with you. If that is indicative of his tenure, then that’s a very good sign. If I were to advise him I would say put a few more stakes of decency and humility in the ground with different stakeholders and then take on, in careful strategic fashion, the factions you have on your board. But he needs some notches in his belt.
The subtitle of your book is “the power of courageous leadership in turbulent times.” “Turbulence” certainly describes the world today. How should leaders lead when that has become a constant state of being?
Leaders of whatever kind of group have a responsibility to be able to articulate a credible, worthy, serious mission — what’s the purpose of what we’re doing. Right now what we see so much of is people just reacting and ricocheting back and forth. … We’ve got to be better at teaching ourselves how to know what we need to know. That’s less about stroking our phones and our Twitter accounts than about looking up and out for all kind of information.
What are your other favorite biographies or historic works where the lessons for today’s leaders really come through?
One interesting one right now is Robert Kennedy’s “13 Days in October,” about the Cuban missile crisis. That’s so timely, and it’s so beautifully written. David Donald’s biography of Lincoln is the best single volume about Lincoln; it’s eminently readable and chock full of leadership lessons.
A really good book I give to my students every year is [former Washington Post Co. chairman] Katharine Graham’s book. It has all these lessons for quiet people who learn to lead on a public stage and then how they make all these tough choices about truth. And then Taylor Branch wrote a three-volume set about the civil rights movement, but volume three is particularly relevant. It is hugely educational about moving big boulders up big mountains, and it profiles a whole number of civil rights activists, both men and women.