Courageous Leadership: Frederick Douglass

In Forged in Crisis, Nancy Koehn focuses on five quite different leaders who exemplify the power of courage in turbulent times: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson.

These are among her comments about Frederick Douglass:

“Through the turmoil of the 1850s, as he considered different tools, different players, and different scenarios, Douglass never lost sight of a critical factor: how and under what circumstances he could make the greatest impact as a leader. For example, he knew he was never going to  be a foot soldier in the guerilla warfare envisioned by radical abolitionists such as John Brown. This wasn’t because Douglass lacked physical courage; he had plenty of it. But he recognized that grabbing a rifle wasn’t the most effective thing he could do for the cause. The best use of his talents and experience, as he understood, was to cast his voice, presence, and influence as far and wide as possible.

“This is an essential lesson for anyone who yearns to lead. The temptation, especially in times of discouragement and failure, ix to leap into the first opportunity that comes our way, to do something — anything — that may advance our mission. But this is not, as Douglass realized, right action for leaders. Right action requires taking along pause and considering how one can do the most good. This always entails putting one’s gifts and experience to their best use.”

From Chapter Twenty-Nine, Pages 262-263

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Nancy Koehn is an author and a business historian at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration, and was a Visiting Scholar during 2011–2013. She is also a member of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in the Economics Department. Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times was published by Scribner (2017).

I also highly recommend Douglass’ autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (first published in 1881), and David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2020).



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