FORGED IN CRISIS
The Power of Courageous Leadership
In Turbulent Times
by Harvard Business School historian
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For leaders in the 21st century, there is one pressing question: What set of skills is required to lead in crisis, and can history give us answers? Harvard Business School historian and professor Nancy Koehn has surveyed some of history’s greatest leaders and made an incredible discovery: courageous leaders are not born but made, and the power to lead resides in each of us. Forged in Crisis is the dramatic, insightful epic that can teach anyone how to develop remarkable leadership skills.
We live in a time when faith and confidence in leaders—whether in government, business, or religion—is nil. People sense with growing unease that everything is at stake—long-formed international alliances, the economy, a unified Europe, even the fate of the planet—and yet the highest offices across the globe are occupied by the inexperienced and untested, those who lack the decency, decorum, and courage required of the positions they hold.
We’re led by people we cannot fully trust and the pressing questions are great: what set of skills is required to lead, both in times of stability and of crisis? What traits must we seek in those to whom we hand our fate? How do we become the types of leaders the world needs right now? In her masterly new book FORGED IN CRISIS: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn delivers in-depth portraits of five of history’s most brilliant leaders, spotlighting the diverse skills they relied on to lead, especially in moments of crisis.
Based on personal letters, diaries, archival material, and official records, Forged in Crisis presents the remarkable life journeys of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson—united here in their struggle to transform from ordinary people into great leaders. Koehn begins each of the book’s five sections by showing its protagonist on the precipice of a great crisis: Shackleton marooned on an Antarctic ice floe; Lincoln on the verge of seeing the Union collapse; escaped slave Douglass facing possible capture; Bonhoeffer agonizing over how to counter absolute evil with faith; Carson racing against the cancer ravaging her in a bid to save the planet. The narrative then reaches back to each person’s childhood and shows the individual growing—step by step—into the person he or she will ultimately become.
Readers observe the qualities that these icons draw on to not just meet but triumph over great challenges, in the process becoming real leaders. By examining how these qualities emerge, Forged in Crisis offers a remarkable template by which to judge the leaders of our own time. Koehn also delivers an inspiring and important reminder that great leaders are made, not born, and that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.
In the vein of works by David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Forged in Crisis is a compelling historical narrative and a repository of great insight. More than that, it is a book that matters, perhaps now more than ever. Ten years in the writing, Forged in Crisis stands as a towering achievement.
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Spectacular Advance Praise for Forged in Crisis
“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.”
“Impressive and important…Forged in Crisis is a perfect blend of vital history and engaging prose….Koehn's memorable, timely book is powerful. It reminds us that effective leaders are made—forged in crisis, not simply born. Restraint, compassion, and integrity have been, and will remain, among the timeless, requisite qualities of great leaders.”
--Christopher Rose, HugoBooks
“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. Simply put, it’s the most important, coherent, values-based, servant leadership book I've ever read. The people who come to life in these pages—from polar explorers to environmental activists—share key attributes, many of which they learned as they made themselves into courageous leaders. These are men and women who are willing to endure profound loneliness and put their well-being at risk for a great cause. They are guided by a moral courage that never wavers. And yet as Koehn persuasively shows, such selfless determination and the ability to make an extraordinary difference in the world are not beyond even the most ordinary among us. We are all forged by circumstance, and by conscious effort we can all become powerful weapons of virtue.”
--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
"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. Each of the portraits will help leaders of today in coping with rapid, turbulent change. And here's an extra bonus: they are great reads."
--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. Perhaps it is this propulsive power that accounts for how thoroughly we take in the book’s insights. Long after Forged in Crisis has been set down, we reflect on what it teaches us about managing crisis. The demon—whatever it is—is never slain by a single bullet. Rather, what’s required is an iterative process: repeated attempts, different angles of attack. It is the willingness of the great leader to keep on trying past anyone else’s point of exhaustion that often yields success.”
--Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of The Powers to Lead
“Koehn’s well-written and incisive study helps to show us the way to a better nation. Wisely, she chooses to portray people from different races, genders, and eras, [carving] out a new and clearer definition of leadership in the world. In many ways, the book is like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. This is a very perceptive look at leadership in the modern era that taps leadership qualities from the past.”
--Bruce Chadwick, author of Law and Disorder, James and Dolly Madison, and The General and Mrs. Washington
“A powerful and timely treatise on leadership, Forged in Crisis presents five compelling portraits of individuals who made a lasting impact on the world in times of extraordinary challenge. Nancy Koehn is a seriously talented historian who has a gift for mining the past to elucidate the present. She writes with verve and vivid detail.”
--Graham Allison, former Assistant Secretary of State, and author of Essence of Decision and Destined for War
“A remarkably insightful book, written in a style that is consistently engaging and absorbing, which reminds us that leaders are made not born, and that the crucibles from which they emerge are, above all, tests of character. Koehn gives us one stunning example after another of individuals who endured deep loneliness while betting the ranch on a hard-to-predict outcome. We hold our breath along with them, and exhale when, after sometimes agonizing losses, they finally succeed—or fail gloriously. Standing back from these stirring accounts, we can’t help marvel at the moral compass that, in each of these people, always pointed to true north. This book is a wonder—exactly the leadership roadmap needed for these challenging times.”
--Les Wexner, Chairman and CEO of L Brands
“Nancy Koehn vividly shows the qualities shared by five of history's greatest leaders—and how we can all tap into those same qualities to overcome challenges and confront crises in our own lives. Forged in Crisis is an inspirational, insightful and indispensable guide to perseverance, wisdom and resilience.”
--Arianna Huffington, Founder of The Huffington Post and Founder and CEO of Thrive Global
“An outstanding rebuttal of the myth that leaders somehow have different DNA than ordinary people. Koehn’s profiles of legendary figures reveal that, in fact, none of these people were leadership naturals—rather, their abilities were forged by the challenges they confronted. During trying times, they kept an unwavering resolve and put others’ needs before their own. Their example ought to inspire every aspiring leader to rise to the occasion.”
--William P. Lauder, Executive Chairman, The Estée Lauder Companies
“Vividly recreates the anguish and urgency felt by five trailblazing leaders in times of great adversity. With spirited prose that highlights crucial moments of testing and triumph, Nancy Koehn breathes life into the past as she shows what it takes to lead. In challenging times, this book is an essential read.”
--Zoë Baird, CEO and President, The Markle Foundation