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.”
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.”
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