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Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times Hardcover – October 3, 2017
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"Enthralling . . . a fascinating look at a varied group of heroes . . . Koehn's call for her audience to emulate them strikes a pleasingly hopeful note for an era of partisan discord and lack of faith in leaders."
“Koehn skillfully weaves together [her five leaders’] stories and the lessons, primary of which is ‘great leaders are made, not born.' . . . [The] stories are highly engaging (and well documented); in fact, many are transformed into nail-biting adventures . . . A book that quietly surpasses many so-called leadership tomes.”
—Booklist (Starred Review)
“[An] engaging, unusually rewarding book . . . Throughout, Koehn underscores the great humanity and depth of understanding of these leaders . . . Wise, thoughtful, and valuable, this book will foster a new appreciation for effective leadership and prompt many readers to lament the lack of it in the world today.”
—Kirkus (Starred Review)
“Each of the five stand-alone case studies is well-written and interesting . . . there is much to enjoy [here].”
—New York Times
"Leadership is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. At a time when it has become almost invisible at the national level, Nancy Koehn has performed the invaluable service of reminding us what it looks like in five superbly told tales of inspirational human courage. This book is dense with epiphanies that defy our current cowardly condition."
—Joseph J. Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers and the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx
"This book moved me deeply and will stay with me. Forged in Crisis is a compelling historical work and a vital analysis of the skills required to lead in the most important—and often dire—situations."
—Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company
"As important and inspiring as it is urgent."
—Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and three-term mayor of New York City
"A double triumph, artfully telling us the stories of five major historical figures while also providing wise insights into how they seized upon crises to grow as leaders."
—David Gergen, Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Eyewitness to Power
"A close analysis of five gritty leaders whose extraordinary passion and perseverance changed history . . . a gripping read on a timeless and timely topic!"
—Angela Duckworth, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Grit
"Emotionally gripping—so much so that it's easy to forget one is reading nonfiction. The scenes have the pull of a great novel, continually coaxing us to turn pages. . . Long after Forged in Crisis has been set down, we reflect on what it teaches us about managing crisis."
—Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School and author of The Powers to Lead
About the Author
Nancy Koehn is an historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. She has coached leaders from many organizations and speaks frequently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the World Business Forum. An accomplished author and scholar (she earned her MA and PhD degrees in history from Harvard), she spent ten years writing Forged in Crisis, her first book aimed at a popular audience. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and is a dedicated equestrian.
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The stories at the core of this book are about Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. This was an interesting mix of subjects for me. I had read some about Shackleton, a lot about Lincoln, hardly anything about Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson. As a preacher’s son with some family connections to the people in the Bonhoeffer saga, I felt like I had a unique perspective on his life.
I learned something about all five people from this book. I’m grateful for that. I also think that you can learn many leadership lessons from the stories.
The Leadership Analysis
I was gravely disappointed by the quality of the analysis in this book. They more like afterthoughts than the organic result of careful analysis. Much of the time the analysis didn’t seem to have required much thought at all.
The conclusion is titled “The Power of Courageous Leadership.” There, Professor Koehn tells us that the most important thing that connects these leaders is “that these leaders were made, not born.” That might have been a penetrating insight back when I was in college and it was common to read biographies of leaders who basically sprang from the womb equipped to lead. In the early 21st Century, it doesn’t seem quite so stunning.
We’re told that “All five leaders were willing to work on themselves.” Does that strike you as a major insight? I think it’s true, but it’s not new or helpful. There are some interesting things about how they used solitude and writing to make sense of things, but that’s not big stuff. That’s the kind of thing you can get from a motivational speaker.
Then, we’re told that “The second thing that each of the five leaders learned as they navigated through great turbulence was the significance of committing to a worthy goal.” That makes it sound like there was a sudden awakening, but that’s not what I take out of the stories. The five people profiled discovered the importance the issues and the depth of their resources by taking one step forward at a time. Also, frankly, if they hadn’t committed to a worthy goal and succeeded, we wouldn’t be writing about them.
The third lesson that they all learned was the value of resilience. That’s not exactly stop the presses stuff.
Finally, we have this, “Part of the reason that these five ordinary people could do extraordinary things was that they led from their humanity.” Elsewhere, she says that they led from their “stronger selves.” My question is, “What else would they lead from?”
There are a lot of good leadership lessons in this book, but they come directly out of the stories. The analysis doesn’t help. Sometimes it gets in the way.
In A Nutshell
Overall, the stories in this book are very good, but the leadership analysis feels like it’s bolted on, perhaps added as an afterthought. The book felt like something that was done on assignment. I have no idea what the assignment might be, whether it was thinking “Gosh, I haven’t written a book in a long time. Maybe I should do another one,” or “I should write another book to make some money,” or something else. There was great passion in the storytelling. The analysis seemed forced.
My advice to you is this. If you want to read some good stories about real leaders in real situations, buy Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times and read it for those stories. You’ll get your money’s worth. If you’re looking for analysis to make sense of it all, look elsewhere.