Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times
Book Author: Nancy Koehn, Scribner, 2017
As has become my habit, many of my business book purchases come from strong recommendations by colleagues who have an interest in current leadership thinking; this book is one of those.
Nancy Kroehn anchors her book in the stories of five figures from history: explorer Ernest Shackleton, President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
A common thread running through each story is the personal commitment each made to an overriding goal, generally in the midst of both personal struggle and often life and death situations. As with most discussions of courageous leadership, the stakes are high and outcomes are often uncertain.
The main theme is stated most succinctly in the overview found on the dust jacket: “In a book dense with epiphanies, the most galvanizing one may be that the power to lead courageously resides in each one of us”. That simple yet powerful statement helps the reader to find parallels with the experiences of each of these historical figures when on first sight it may be difficult to equate their circumstances with ours.
While I enjoyed the book very much, I also found that at times I had difficulty in keeping the distinct stories relevant to my work as a coach and consultant to clients in senior leadership roles. Then late in my reading I had my own epiphany: reading the author’s concluding chapter ‘The Power of Courageous Leadership’ at the outset helps to provide the larger framework within which to both understand the five major stories and connect them in a meaningful way with the challenges our clients face in their particular organizations.
Let me close this overview by citing some of the key messages in Kroehn’s book. While the five individuals comprise a diverse group, the author highlights the key threads which connect them. These include the reality that leaders are made, not born; “impetus, strength and validation” to carry on was embedded in the larger mission they identified; leadership for each “was partly shaped by a willingness to subordinate personal drive in a broader end…one inexorably linked with service to others; and each of the five leaders was “willing to work on themselves”; as Kroehn writes: “They committed to cultivating their emotional awareness and [used] this to access their stronger selves”.
The last point speaks to what we today would refer to as emotional intelligence, a focus on bringing their “better selves’ to situations, a commitment to developing both resilience as well as agility in service of clear goals.
An important point for leaders to keep in mind is that unlike Julius Caesar who is said to have remarked on one recent battle that “everything had to be done at once”, each of the leaders profiled in the book took a “a single step forward into the turbulence and then taking the next step after that”.
From a ‘lessons learned’ perspective, Kroehn explicitly cites the value of making thoughtful choices in taking—or not taking action—action, committing to a “worthy goal” and building a resilient capacity.
Finally, the author leaves us with the most important aspects of behaviour which in each case enhanced the influence of the leader and his or her ability to build a team and sustain the will of others to follow their lead. Each led from their “humanity” and compassion, paid “attention to small details” and brought “humility” gained through “having endured learned from crisis”. The last word comes from the author’s next-to-last sentence of the book:
“They tried to walk with integrity, thoughtfulness and a sense of purpose”