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.