HR & Management

Five leaders that exhibited valued traits during moments of strife

15 min read

11 October 2017

The past offers numerous examples of where people have gone right – or wrong. It was the premise of a recent book, which delved into the lives of five leaders to pinpoint which valued traits came to the fore in times of need. We took a closer look.

Nancy Koehn, a Harvard Business School historian, garnered much attention this week after the release of her book Forged in Crisis. It analyses how Ernest Shackleton, Rachel Carson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln gained success – and the valued traits they exhibited.

Having previously delved into the lives of Lincoln and Shackleton, she’s of the belief that leaders are made, not born, admitting that her own definition of “leadership” aligns with one of novelist Davis Foster Wallace’s quotes: “Real leaders help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness, selfishness, weakness and fear.”

Koehn is adamant that mankind’s most valued traits come to the fore during moments of adversity – a concept shared by all five of her elected individuals. “In the middle of the perfect storm they say, ‘I’m going to make something good of all these high winds and big waves’,” she said.

We were intrigued, and hoped to find out what the modern business owner could learn from her five examples.

(1) Ernest Shackleton – explorer

While many of his business ventures failed, Koehn used the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition as his source of strife. Detailing the journey in a LinkedIn article, Matt Thomas, headmaster of Dorset House School, exclaimed the goal of being first to cross the Antarctic was “audacious” in itself. But despite his ship being crushed by the pressure of the ice before reaching its destination, he secured the survival of all 27 crew members.

“Shackleton decided the only chance of survival was to trek over icy terrain to open water,” Thomas said. “Four months of struggling with three one tonne lifeboats and interminable waiting later, the ice was broken enough for them to take to their lifeboats. For a week they endured sub-zero conditions, hunger and thirst as they drifted to a small, uninhabited island.”

Sir Raymond Priestley once said: "When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Ernest Shackleton"

Sir Raymond Priestley once said: “When disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Ernest Shackleton”

That wasn’t the end of their problems, but Koehn suggests him keeping those men “away from the cliff of doubt and despair” is one of the most valued traits leaders can have. The mental health debate argues that bosses help employees through their “turbulence” where possible. More importantly, she added, he carried himself well knowing all eyes looked to him as an example.

Thomas threw in his own two cents: “Shackleton was ‘emotionally intelligent’; in other words he knew when he needed to be supportive and was good at spotting individual problems, as well as dealing with them. Two months after the ship sank, he lifted morale by doubling rations.”

Koehn, in turn, suggested in a Quartz interview with Dina Gerdeman, that had he hired different people, the result would have been different. Essentially, he recruited for attitude and trained them after. “He knew who the naysayers would be and kept them close, that they would easily be motivated were he to appear confident and that they would group together like a band of brothers.”

(2) Rachel Carson – marine biologist

Koehn was intrigued by Carson’s tale, having written about her in 2012 for The New York Times. Fittingly entitled “calm leadership, lasting change,” she noted that despite being soft-spoken, Carson had forced the government to confront dangerous pesticides and felt the backlash from chemical companies, all while “battling breast cancer and caring for a young child. She also supported her ailing mother”.

Carson was what Koehn deemed “a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities associated with leadership. But as people like Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,’ have pointed out, leadership can come in less obvious forms.”

Rachel Carson

“Such a catalog of illnesses,” Carson allegedly told a friend. “If one were superstitious it would be easy to think some force wanted the book unfinished”

As the author of the famous Silent Spring, Carson was a diligent researcher – one of those valued traits which more leaders should strive to acknowledge. She used her extensive network to gather findings, but the book itself took longer to finish than Carson had expected. Her mother died, she got pneumonia and caught an eye inflammation which almost left her sightless. Yet she remained confident and pursued her objective relentlessly.

“She was focussed on her goals,” Koehn explained. More importantly, she told Gerdeman, Carson understood how to make others perceive her statements in a positive light. But for all her ability to persevere, she also offers a lesson in what not to do.

“Carson gave to others and to her work without consistently feeding and watering herself. Today, we know more about the relationship between emotional duress and diseases like cancer. Carson’s battles with breast cancer were partly related to all the years of hard work without refuelling.”

Continue reading on the next page to find out which valued traits were exhibited by a spy, a champion of freedom and a president

(3) Dietrich Bonhoeffer – spy

At the beginning of Hitler’s reign, Bonhoeffer had been a pastor. He was none too pleased, however, when legislation ruling the removal of Jews from German churches was passed – and he said as much. This changed the life he had once know. His reputation diminished, he lost his position and even the ability to marry his beloved.

Clinging to his beliefs, Bonhoeffer became an agent and was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. But throughout these events, he never demonstrated aggressiveness. It’s something Koehn mentions as well, suggesting his sense of integrity was what drew others to his cause.

An undercover Bonhoeffer risked being a courier to the German resistance in the hope of giving information to the Western Allies

An undercover Bonhoeffer risked being a courier to the German resistance so as to give information to the Western Allies

“He was deeply reflective and a man of fewer rather than many words,” she said. “Nonetheless he motivated others to work from their better selves. We’re wedded to thinking that those who are quick-acting, compelling, and charismatic, are the people we must follow, elect and support. That’s not the whole story by any means.”

Even when imprisoned for a year and a half, Bonhoeffer maintained his focus. This was one his most valued traits, Koehn explained, pointing out the number of distractions modern leaders are faced with today. From social media to our own smart devices, it’s become difficult to keep our eye on the ball. Yet even when we need dedicated rest periods, leaders need to be able to zone in again when it matters.

“Most of us have some addiction problem with technology. At some point, leaders need to turn away from their inboxes and newsfeeds to realise they don’t contain all the answers. They often prevent us from seeing important things. Also, making a big, worthy difference is never about the ten things in front of a leader; instead, it is about one or two or three key issues.”

(4) Frederick Douglass – champion for abolition

Born a slave in 1817, Douglass went on to give hope to many, advocating equality for all and advising numerous presidents. He was separated from his mother at a young age, made to work at a plantation where learning was disapproved of and beatings were a normal part of life. He did, however, educate himself in secret.

His thirst for knowledge, many claim, helped him greatly. Douglass himself professed that “knowledge was the pathway to freedom.” One of his most valued traits, however, was his want to share his goal. Douglass took it upon himself to teach those around him using the Bible.

According to history professor Roy Finkenbine: "He also spoke on behalf of women's rights, peace, land reform and free public education"

According to history professor Roy Finkenbine: “Douglass also spoke on behalf of women’s rights, peace, land reform and free public education”

But there’s one specific trait that permeates his story. Gerderman herself suggests Douglass feared his master, but something changed one day to make him fight back and escape. Koehn explained: “Dealing with our worst fears is hard. I call it the 2am cold sweats, where you think: ‘How am I going to get through this?’ Every leader knows these moments.

“What’s interesting about this critical moment for Douglass is that you see a man who’s been made a slave, and he’s scared of the overseer, but he’s not going to succumb this time. He steps into his fear. Each step makes him a little stronger and a little braver, and that means the next move is easier than the one before.”

Even after escaping, he persisted in his fight against slavery, demonstrating a great deal of courage. He performed a speech in 1852 rebuking the act at a time where slavery was still abundant. What’s more, Marjorie Derven, founder of Hudson research, exclaimed that “with his great communication gifts, Douglass inspired others to see what was necessary and was widely admired for his ability to define the need for change.”

(5) Abraham Lincoln – president

Abraham Lincoln was know for a great many things, for ending slavery and maintaining the union during the Civil War. Of course, the latter was a difficult task, but he also suffered from clinical depression. Before that, he lost eight elections, had a nervous breakdown and failed in business. But among his most valued traits was the ability to get back up once more.

He himself once said, a quote from Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln: “I remember that the day deciding the contest for the Senate between Mr. Douglas and myself was dark and rainy. I had been reading the returns and had ascertained that we lost the legislature and started to go home. My foot slipped from under me, but I recovered myself and said to myself: ‘It’s a slip and not a fall’.”

“Lincoln’s presidency is a well-lit classroom for leaders seeking to build successful firms,” Starbuck's Howard Schultz once said in an e-mail

“Lincoln’s presidency is a well-lit classroom for leaders seeking to build successful firms,” Starbuck’s Howard Schultz said

That’s not the biggest lesson he has to offer though, according to Koehn. “Lincoln was a good public speaker and people wanted to be around him, but he was slow-moving. He often looked at every angle of a decision before making a choice. When the stakes were high and the emotions around an issue were charged, Lincoln often did nothing in the heat of the moment.

“This is a vital lesson for our time. Sometimes doing nothing is the most powerful something we can offer in service to our ultimate purpose. If we’re too aggressive and act quickly, we can sabotage our mission or make the situation more incendiary than it needs to be.”

Of course, Elizabeth Street, writing for LearningLifeOff, attributed his success to his humility. She explained that failure had instilled in him the will to learn, even to the point of giving adversaries positions on his cabinet. She concluded: “His humility allowed him to accept his own failures and not be threatened by the success of others.”

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