Inspired by her own struggles, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn turned to figures from the past who overcame adversity to leave a lasting mark on civilization. She learned that true leaders are those who can forge through impossible odds with intelligence, compassion and resilience. Koehn has captured the stories of five inspiring historical figures in her book, Forged In Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. They include Abraham Lincoln, who presided over the United States at a pivotal time in its young history; Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who escaped slavery to become a writer and a statesman; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German clergyman who became a double agent against the Nazis; Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer who survived a shipwreck on an ice floe; and Rachel Carson, a scientist whose work sparked the modern environmental movement. Koehn recently joined the Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss her book and why true leaders are made, not born.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Nancy Koehn: Ironically, the germs of the book came from finding myself in a series of completely unexpected crises, both personal and professional. My father died. Three months later, my husband walked out after 15 years of marriage. I got cancer with no risk factors. A couple of years passed, I got cancer again, befuddling all the doctors. I was beset by high waves and huge, big, strong winds.
I realized I’m a historian by training, so I grabbed for books of Abraham Lincoln’s writings. I started at the back of his life, the end of the Civil War, and I reread backwards. With each of his letters and speeches and columns he wrote for newspapers, I kept thinking to myself, “Nancy, you think you have crises; Lincoln had much more to deal with, both in terms of being president and dealing with all kinds of personal losses he and his wife had suffered.”
That was the genesis. How do we navigate through crisis? How do leaders? Because this was so clear in Lincoln’s case. How do leaders not only navigate and lead their followers through crisis, but how do they become better, stronger, more embracing of a worthy purpose with more access to their muscles of moral courage? I thought that was such a compelling question. That was really the beginnings of the book. Then I found these other four fascinating people with their jaw-dropping, gripping stories, and I was off to the races.
Knowledge at Wharton: Lincoln’s story is well-known to most Americans, as is perhaps the story of Frederick Douglass. But the other people you selected — Ernest Shackleton, Rachel Carson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — are not exactly household names.
“I just thought these stories are amazing. They’re like the best movies we’ve ever seen.”
Koehn: That was part of the reason to include these stories I stumbled on. I didn’t know much about Douglass, even though I’m a historian. I was trained as a European historian. I think a lot of Americans don’t know the astounding challenges he overcame as a slave who escaped to the North to get his freedom, and then as a tireless activist to abolish slavery.
Ernest Shackleton was this explorer whose boat goes through the ice off the coast of Antarctica in 1915. He’s stranded with lifeboats, some canned goods and no means of communication, and somehow he’s got to get his 27-man team home alive.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was active in the resistance to Hitler throughout the 1930s. In the 1940s, he becomes a double agent within with the Nazi government to try and kill Hitler and overthrow the Third Reich.
Rachel Carson is this very quiet, retiring scientist and writer who literally rocks the world and almost single-handedly launches the environmental movement when she publishes Silent Spring in 1962.
I just thought these stories are amazing. They’re like the best movies we’ve ever seen. I’ve got to tell them.
Knowledge at Wharton: Bonhoeffer’s story as a double agent and a pastor is something that a Hollywood movie scriptwriter would love.
Koehn: I could not agree more. You can’t make this stuff up. Here’s a man who’s a pacifist, who’s a deeply committed Christian, who has spent years of his young adult life lecturing on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as the noose of Nazi evil tightens. He has family members who are working inside the government as resistors, so he knows the inside story of what the Nazi government is doing, including the beginnings of what we call today the Holocaust. He is more and more frustrated by his inability to do something, through alternative churches that he and others have helped found, to resist the Nazi government.
Eventually, he has to come to terms with this terrible moral dilemma, which is, “We may have to kill Hitler in order to stop a much greater evil. Yet we cannot escape the moral consequences of what we’re doing.” He grapples with that and ultimately decides to cross that line and do that. The story is fascinating inside and out in terms of what he experienced.
Knowledge at Wharton: Wasn’t one of his problems also the fact that Adolf Hitler and Nazis really didn’t respect the church that much to begin with?
Koehn: Not at all. They had no patience for the true teachings of Christianity, either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, and for Judaism. They had absolutely no respect for the nobler messages of a lot of great religions. They were doing everything they could to manage and control churches toward messages that supported their power, that supported Nazi teachings. Again, here’s someone who, everywhere he turns, is stymied by an authoritarian regime bent on war and bent on making war on its own citizens, anyone they considered enemies of the state. Some of the really interesting and gripping parts of the chapter are the Gestapo trying to trap Bonhoeffer.
Knowledge at Wharton: Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer was assassinated. At that time, that was the only option that Nazis considered. If you were thought to be against their establishment, they were willing to get rid of you and not even think twice.
Koehn: Right. And Bonhoeffer was from a very well-connected family in Berlin, a storied family with a great deal of power. They were not supporters of the Nazi regime, but they were historically very important people. It speaks to their determination to literally eliminate suspected enemies that they murdered Bonhoeffer. He is killed by the German state in April 1945. Two weeks later, the place where he is murdered is liberated by Allied Forces advancing into Germany. But for a couple of weeks, this brave, serious, very courageous man would have lived.
Knowledge at Wharton: Did I read correctly that he spent some time in the United States?
Koehn: He spent a critical year in New York, teaching and lecturing and learning at the Union Theological Seminary. He was back there again in 1939. His friends in Germany had spirited him off for a year away before he was either called up for conscription, because the Nazis were making war in 1939, or he was arrested by the Gestapo. He goes to New York and realizes, “I cannot be here in good conscience. I have to go back and join my brethren in the struggle to overthrow Nazi Germany.” He gets on one of the last ships to sail for Germany from America before war breaks out, a month before World War II begins.
“You can’t get to the end result of the Civil War and the restoration of America to its original promise without slavery if you don’t have both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You said there are elements of Douglass’s life that a lot of people don’t really know or understand. Take us deeper.
Kohn: Let me give you one example that still stays with me. I use it in my own life to steel my own muscles of courage. Douglass was a strong, very intelligent, very resourceful teenager who couldn’t stand being a slave. His owner sends him off to a man named Edward Covey, who is known as a slave-breaker. These were people whose job it was to intimidate slaves into more docility and more subservience through both through physical violence and emotional abuse. Owners often sent recalcitrant black men to these people.
Douglass is with the slave-breaker and he’s scared. Covey’s been beating him. He had run away to his owner to seek some kind of redress. His owner had sent him back to Covey. He’s worried that Covey’s going to attack him, and Covey comes at him one hot summer Monday morning. Douglass decides in that moment to step into the fear and confront Covey. They have this huge physical fight. It goes on for two hours. They’re wrestling. They don’t have weapons. Covey calls other slaves to come help him, and the black man and woman he calls refuse to get involved. They watch. And for two hours, these men wrestle. In the end, it’s a draw. Neither brings the other to the ground decisively. But a draw for Frederick Douglass is a victory. Covey relents and never, ever touches Frederick Douglass again.
In his first autobiography, Narrative of a Slave, Douglass says, “You have seen how a man is made a slave. Now you see how a slave was made a man.” He recovers his self-confidence. He recovers his sense of identity. He rips through, cuts through the years of varnish of depression and loss of agency that slavery, and particularly this man, has imposed on him, and he is made, he has access to his stronger self. That is such a powerful lesson for all of us, when we face some of our worst fears and take the first small step into that fear to discover our truer, braver, stronger self. It’s an amazing story, and there are many more like it in his life’s journey.
Knowledge at Wharton: He is considered to be one of the most important African-Americans of the 19th century.
Koehn: Oh, I think he was. I think he’s one of the most important leaders in American history. The book makes the point that these two leaders of the five, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, ended up working for a common purpose to end slavery. They came to know each other, and they came to respect each other.
I make this point, which is not always made when we talk about Lincoln as the great emancipator, that Lincoln could never have done what he did — issue the Emancipation Proclamation, then prosecute the rest of the war as a war to end slavery and save the union — without all the work on the ground that Frederick Douglass did as a spokesperson, an activist, a man who was changing political momentum of northern whites towards slavery, working with ordinary citizens, working with politicians, working with journalists. You can’t get to the end result of the Civil War and the restoration of America to its original promise without slavery if you don’t have both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. This man made a huge, important, positive difference.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s talk about Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer who is shipwrecked on the ice. We’ve heard shipwreck stories before, but leadership is at the core of being able to overcome the worst situations.
Koehn: That’s exactly right and spot on, and that’s why it’s at the top of the book. It’s there for two reasons. One, this is such a stark example of what you just said. Against all odds, when the stakes could not be higher, you can accomplish the nearly impossible, just as he did. You read the story and keep turning the page, and you go, “It can’t keep getting worse. This can’t be this hard. He can’t be facing this roadblock.” And he keeps coming through them. He somehow keeps that resilience, that commitment to mission, that dedication. You read this and think, “Shackleton can teach us a lot about what we are capable of if we really access our core muscles of strength and courage.”
The second reason I put him at the top of the book is because most of us don’t know this story, and because it’s so gripping. It’s such a page turner.
Knowledge at Wharton: Give us more of the story of Rachel Carson.
Koehn: She’s the last person in the book and the only woman. As much as I fell in love with every one of these people, I have a very special place in my heart for her. She was born to poor parents and went to college in the 1920s, when most women didn’t go to college and most women didn’t complete college. If they did, they certainly weren’t biologists, as she was. They didn’t seek a living in science, as she did.
“That is such a powerful lesson for all of us, when we face some of our worst fears and take the first small step to discover our truer, braver, stronger self.”
She quickly becomes the only breadwinner for her birth family, financially supporting and caretaking for her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, her nieces. At the same time, she’s getting a master’s in zoology at Johns Hopkins University and beginning a career that will ultimately marry this incredible poetic grace and beauty she has with language to her deep commitment to scientific rigor and truth in articles and books that make the natural world completely accessible to people, without dumbing down the science.
She pursues and marries these two gifts and nurtures them and learns all these things about herself while going home at night and putting her nieces to bed, making dinner, cleaning up and putting laundry in, like lots of women today. In the early 1950s, she writes a book called The Sea Around Us, about the majesty and importance and environmental diaspora of the ocean, in a way that every lay-reader can understand. It’s a bestseller, which gives her the freedom to leave her job at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she’s been doing all kinds of things for many years, mostly editorial content tasks and responsibilities.
She searches around for her next project and bumps into the issue of pesticides that are being used in huge, largely untested ways by farmers, big chemical companies and for household use. The more she learns as she puts on her detective cap, the more anxious she gets, the more concerned she gets about the possible effects of this. A bit like lots of things we’ve discovered about chemicals and environmental dangers in our own lifetime.
She starts to piece together a very complicated, very serious, very high-stakes story about the dangers of these. She’s doing her homework painstakingly; it takes her years to do this. She’s double-, triple-, quadruple-checking everything. She’s very careful to not release anything before its time. But as people get wind of it, there are threats against her, threats against her family, because Dow Chemical and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and lots of places don’t want this story out there. Yet, she’s determined. She said, “I could never look myself in the face if I kept silent on this.” She has stumbled into her life’s work. At the same time, in the middle of her research and the beginnings of her writing, she is diagnosed with aggressive, metastasizing cancer.
The second half of the chapter is the story of her race against the clock and her commitment to do this work right and to get it out there in a way that will call for citizens to action on behalf of the Earth, not in an impractical and romantic way, but in a pragmatic and morally responsible way. It’s an astounding book that still sells many copies. And it’s a page-turner because she writes so well and she makes it so easy for us to understand, and she’s so careful.
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