How People Become Leaders

As I think about the leaders I’ve known and served with through the years I still wonder – how did they become leaders?

According to Nancy Koehn, in her recent book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, leaders emerge from and are shaped by their struggles.

As an historian at the Harvard Business School she highlights five iconic leaders remembered for their determination, even sacrifice in the face of personal and public crises.

  • Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton,
  • President Abraham Lincoln,
  • Freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas,
  • Nazi resister and clergy martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Environmental crusader Rachel Carson

Although I knew something about each one of these I learned much more from Koehn’s mini-biographies, especially about their early character development and how they thrived in spite of what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

In their youth, neither they nor those close to them imagined they would become celebrated leaders. They were simply, as Koehn describes them, ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

Yet each one had character traits that sustained them through their crises.

Character was the necessary foundation for their good leadership.

None of Koehn’s five had what she calls ‘specific endowments’ for leadership.   However, she writes, ‘they worked on themselves: intentionally choosing to make something better of who they were, even in the midst of crisis.’

While leadership in and of itself cannot be taught, character can be.   In his 2015 book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes some of the virtues that lead to character development in several of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders.

Crisis was the context in which their leadership skills were formed or forged.

Each of the five she spotlights knew they were in the midst of a ‘profound personal crisis not of his or her own making.’   Recognizing that ‘they couldn’t give up.’ ‘Rather,’ she writes, ‘each resolutely navigated through the storm and was transformed,’ and the people around them were given hope for a better world.

None of Koehn’s leaders would have wished for the crises that disrupted their lives.   Yet none of them would have become the leaders we remember had it not been for the turbulence they and their followers experienced.

Leadership happens when good people do extraordinary things for others during difficult times. It is never easy.

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8 Responses to How People Become Leaders

  1. Mark Fuller says:

    I resonate with this post in so many ways, but I was intrigued by your statement, “While leadership in and of itself cannot be taught, character can be.” I have always thought just the opposite, that leadership can be taught but character cannot… you either have it or you don’t. Please expand.

  2. Tom Nees says:

    Mark – Thanks for picking up on that thought. It’s something that I have been working on recently and plan to expand on in another blog or even book. Leadership, like talent is not a stand-alone skill. It seems to me that good leadership happens at the nexus of character and context as in the Koehn book. None of the leaders she profiles had any leadership training as such. However, I do believe in the value of leadership development and coaching.

  3. Glen Gardner says:

    Wondering if you saw similarities from this book to The Leadership Triangle from Amy Cunningham (?) might not be the correct last name? Thanks for the blog. I am grateful for you!

  4. Tom Nees says:

    Glenn – Yes – in my recent blog on Grant I quoted her Leadership Triangle article to understand how Grant, however understated as a leader simply stepped in to take charge when needed at several moments in his life.

  5. Bob Sloan says:


    Thank you for an excellent blog. I plan to buy and read the book. Sounds really good. I also liked your listing of books that kept you awake in 2017.


  6. Fred Huff says:

    Thanks Tom for your thought provoking analysis
    and reflections. I have admired and respected you
    for decades. I continue to do so now through your
    writing in place of face to face encounters.
    Have you thought of hosting a forum in Annapolis
    Where some of us that have followed you and your
    leadership for years could come together for a
    night And day to listen and dialogue and think about
    leadership. Just a thought.
    Your friend,
    Fred Huff

  7. Tom Nees says:

    Thanks Fred – I would welcome a leadership conversation in Annapolis with you and others. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.

  8. Rob McKinnon says:

    Excellent. Thanks Tom.

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