Forged in Crisis: A book review by Bob Morris

Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Uncertain Times
Nancy Koehn
Scribner/An imprint of Simon & Schuster (October 2017)

Five otherwise ordinary people who “led from their humanity” when achieving greatness

Nancy Koehn spent at least ten years thinking and then developing her thoughts about a term that has been personified throughout human history: “courageous leadership.” It is the result of “individual people committing to work from their stronger selves, discovering a mighty purpose, and motivating others to join their cause. In the process, each of the leaders and the people they inspire are made more resilient, a bit bolder, and, in some instances, even more luminous. When this happens, impact expands, and the possibility grows for moving goodness forward in the world.”

She consulted a wide range of sources (see Pages 459-496) and eventually selected five on whom to focus: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. However different they may have been in most respect, all of them were “forged in crisis.” Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas characterize the process as a “crucible.”

Koehn stresses the significance of the fact that “each of the five leaders embraced a mission uniquely his or her own. Ernest Shackleton tried to bring his men home safely; Lincoln sought to save the Union; Douglass wanted to free Black Americans held in slavery [as he once was]; Bonhoeffer struggled to resist Nazi evil; and Carson spoke out for the critical importance of environmental sustainability.” The number of lives her advocacy saved is incalculable.

Shackleton, Lincoln, Douglass, Bonhoeffer, and Carson all “lived in a perfect storm,” gaining “mileage with failure,” and led with their humanity, warts and all. “They used their personal experience, particularly their empathy, to help motivate and sustain others.”

What makes their achievements – and the beneficial impact of their achievements – so remarkable is the fact that, as Koehn explains so eloquently, each was also an ordinary person in so many ways, trying to cope each day with challenges with which all of her readers can identify.

Once they saw what they had to do, “they brought all their strength and self knowledge to bear on the work at hand.” Moreover, like everyone else, these legendary leaders were overwhelmed at times. They grew depressed. They knew great joy. They struggled, at moments, in their intimate relationships, and they also drew vital support from friends, family, and the kindness of strangers.”

For example: “Shackleton was frustrated by the debts he incurred funding his expeditions. As a young man, Lincoln felt awkward around well-dressed women. Douglass enjoyed mingling with fashionable people. Bonhoeffer loved the tomatoes that his parents included in the parcels they left at prison. Carson marveled at the geese outside her Maryland window.”

Near the conclusion of her brilliant book, Koehn suggests a number of lessons that can be learned from these courageous leaders. Understanding and appreciating the importance of

o Forbearance (i.e. management of emotions, including one’s own).
o Patience (i.e. taking sufficient time to make the right decisions).
o Total commitment to a goal (especially when threatened).
o Resilience (Jack Dempsey said, “Champions get up when they can’t.”)
o Seeing the Big Picture (and small ones within that larger context).
o Picking the right spot (time and place) to take the best shot.
o Keeping on going on amidst “the problems and poetry of everyday life.”

Nancy Koehn has written a book of celebration, not only of five courageous leaders but also of the values they personified. “They tried to walk with integrity, thoughtfulness, and a sense of purpose. In this sense, the very way that each lived was an act of leadership unto itself, whose impact resonates – and calls to us – in the early twenty-first century.”

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