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5 Lessons in Leadership from Business Historian Nancy Koehn

We all face challenges, especially leaders at large companies. They must contend with rapid changes in consumer behavior, fluctuating markets, and new, nimble competitors.

There’s no formula or silver bullet for overcoming hurdles and becoming a successful leader. But, if we look to history, the great ones do share a few things in common: strength, savvy, courage, empathy, a willingness to listen, a reverence for new ideas, and a devout deference to their mission. And, every great leader has overcome adversity. It’s what strengthens their leadership.

“Great leaders are made, they are not born.” This is the premise that historian and Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn explores, in rich and riveting detail, in her new book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. Koehn’s latest work takes readers through the rise of five of history’s most transformative figures: Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. Each has overcome great adversity and “pushed the boulder of goodness forward in meaningful ways.” The lessons from their leadership – and how they overcame challenges – are timeless, inspiring, and could not be more relevant.

Koehn joined me on the Outside In podcast to talk about these challenges, share more from her book, and offer guidance for all of us who aspire to be great leaders.

What follows is the most insightful advice from our conversation, which I encourage you to listen to in full here.

Find, believe in, and commit to a meaningful mission
Intrepid leaders know exactly what they’re after, and they go after it with passion and purpose. Koehn points to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz who has defined how to build customer loyalty around exceptional experiences. Belief in his mission never falters, no matter the obstacles.

Convincing others of the worthiness of your mission often requires rethinking the way you communicate it to others. For example, Wall Street prefers to focus on quarterly earnings, not long-term visions. Schultz has overcome the challenge of convincing investors and shareholders to understand the strategic value of the “long game.”

Koehn says Schultz, “a person with great integrity” and with whom she’s had many conversations, makes a point of “getting right with himself every morning when he gets out of bed.” That self-reflection, combined with empathy and responsibility for leading others, is an important part of leadership. “The more he’s done, the more emboldened he’s become,” she says of Schultz. “And, the better, stronger, and more appealing the Starbucks brand has been perceived.”

Exercise restraint
“Sometimes, sitting back and forbearing to do anything is exactly what we need to do for our mission,” Koehn says. In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln was angry with Union General George Meade for not pursuing a defeated Robert E. Lee as he and his Confederate army retreated south. As Lincoln had gotten into the habit of doing, he channeled his anger and frustration into a “hot letter,” tucking the missive away in his desk drawer until his temper cooled, hoping never to send it. And he never did. (But you can read a copy of the original – signed, “To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed” – here.)

A modern application of Lincoln’s “hot letter” strategy: choose not to get involved in a lengthy and heated email chain, or stash away a nasty email to a coworker in the drafts folder. “What if Lincoln had email and hit send in the heat of the moment?” wonders Koehn of Lincoln’s letter never sent. “The fate of world and U.S. history might have been different.”

Recognize that customers are an investment, not a cost
Lots of business leaders talk about how customer-centric they are. But when it comes time to invest in customer service and experience, many will buckle at the additional costs. “Customer service is often messy,” Koehn acknowledges. But listening to customers and acting on what you learn is imperative in an age when they are empowered by choice and use social media to broadcast their grievances.

All the little things you or your company does affects the perception customers have of your business. For example, Koehn says Schultz believes that “you have to deliver an organization that, from the top of the value chain – from where the beans are grown – all the way down to where you get your flat white in the morning – that all that matters to customers.” For business leaders, the lesson is delivering on “a clean, serious, socially conscious business that lifts all kinds of stakeholders in the value creation process. And that that will become increasingly part of how people evaluate brands.”

Remove yourself and make your own mentors
Leadership success is not contingent on constant involvement. Smart leaders know what’s worth their attention, how to delegate, and when to step away. As Koehn insists, “It’s not 10 important things that leaders need to do. It’s never more than three. Great leaders that stop looking for silver bullets liberate themselves to concentrate on the few more complicated things they actually need to do to keep the machine rolling forward.”

Great leaders are sponges. They absorb and learn from the best qualities of those around them. Similarly, they learn what not to do from the bad practices of others.

Above all, there is an awareness of self and mind; an appreciation for self-honesty, deconstructing yourself, and treating every experience (for instance, in the business world, meetings and conference calls) as a classroom. Koehn says you must remind yourself, “It’s never over. I can always get a little better.”

Crisis is a catalyst for leadership
As Sir Ernest Shackleton led his team to the South Pole, his mission was to be the first man to cross the Antarctic continent. The moment his ship got stuck in the ice, however, he knew his mission had changed: get the 27 men on his boat home safely, with only three lifeboats and some canned goods. “The last thing he wanted was doubt to become despair and despair to become discord. That would kill them as much as the elements or starvation.”

Hardship, adversity, obstacles. These are what sculpt great new leaders and move existing ones to “discover their muscles of moral courage and rise to the challenge.” As Koehn’s analysis shows, “This is a great catalyst for leadership.”

The question for all of us, she says, remains: “What’s the gauntlet that’s dropped in front of your feet as a leader?” Lessons from celebrated leaders of the past can inspire our present and our future. Even as we navigate a divisive world, there is a promise of hope and greatness to come.

“History shows us that leaders get better and braver in times of crisis. Not all, but many. And leaders come out of the mist.”

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