Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Nancy Koehn for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. In Forged in Crisis, she offers a brilliant discussion of five quite remarkable people, each of whom is indeed a courageous leader: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson.
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From the start, the Civil War defied Americans’ expectations. Following Fort Sumter, for example, many Northerners and Southerners believed that victory was imminent for their respective side, and that few lives would be lost. But after the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, in July 1861, in which almost 5,000 Union (northern) and Confederate troops were killed or wounded, it became clear that the war would be longer and bloodier than most had anticipated. The day after the battle, Lincoln called for 500,000 volunteers; within days, Congress authorized an additional half million troops.
By late 1861, the Union’s general in chief, George McClellan, had reorganized troops around Washington, but then refused to move them south to attack Confederate forces. His Army of the Potomac—some 120,000-men strong—remained in and near the capital without seeing any kind of battle.
Worried about the general’s inaction, Lincoln began visiting McClellan at home during the evenings. On November 13, the president and one of his secretaries, John Hay, called at the general’s house. McClellan was not in, and the two decided to wait. When the general arrived an hour later, he hurried upstairs, ignoring his visitors. The president and his secretary remained where they were for 30 minutes before Lincoln sent word up that he was still downstairs. McClellan sent his own message back, saying he had gone to bed. Hay was appalled at the general’s insolence, voicing this to the president as they walked back to the White House. “It was better at this time,” Lincoln responded, “not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.” As he came to understand, not all issues—including personal slights and insults—that came before him were of equal importance. Lincoln realized he had to keep his eye (not to mention his emotional energy) on what was central to his mission and not become distracted by what we would today label “sweating the small stuff.”
The president began to teach himself military strategy, borrowing textbooks from the Library of Congress, poring over field reports, and conferring with military officers. As he did this, it became clear to him that a Union victory depended on the North’s ability to exploit its greater resources—human and economic—in a series of interrelated attacks on the Confederacy. But how could he make his generals execute this strategy? McClellan effectively ignored Lincoln’s orders. Other commanders, often acting without top-level coordination, followed their own plans or simply waited.
It was a lonely time. Some of Lincoln’s loneliness flowed from the authority and responsibility he carried. The president knew that saving the Union rested critically on his shoulders—on ability to simultaneously lead on many fronts against many obstacles. This heavy realization isolated Lincoln from family, friends, and colleagues. Not only could these people not fully grasp what he was dealing with; not only did he have to be careful about entrusting his thoughts and feelings to others; but Lincoln also likely understood that no one else could travel the internal path he was taking as a leader. None could see the things he was discovering about himself and his impact, see the ways he was changing as the war stretched on, or, finally, experience his doubts and fears. These were essential aspects of his leadership, and they were his alone.
Virtually every leader will know real loneliness. This is intrinsic to the work; it can rarely be avoided or wiped away by specific action. Instead, effective leaders learn to accept such moments of isolation, using them in service to their larger mission by keeping their own counsel, reflecting carefully on a particular issue, or grappling with their thoughts and feelings.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Nancy Koehn is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. This article is adapted from her book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Koehn. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.