Professor Koehn has written more than 20 Harvard case studies. In this book, she has taken two of her more popular ones, on the explorer Ernest Shackleton and on Abraham Lincoln, and added three new profiles to produce a book to provide tools to facilitate “making oneself into a courageous leader.”
But the three new profiles selected by Professor Koehn — on author and conservationist Rachel Carson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian; and the abolitionist Frederick Douglas — are so far-flung that it is never completely clear what precisely is meant by “leadership” for the purposes of the book.
According to Professor Koehn, the best definition of the type of leadership she wants to explore came from the novelist David Foster Wallace, who believed that real leaders were those “who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
It is an expansive enough definition to encompass both the courage of Carson in completing her environmentalist masterwork, “Silent Spring,” in the face of debilitating and ultimately terminal illness and the daring of Shackleton in successfully guiding his surviving crew across the Antarctic to safety. But it is hardly a unifying concept around which to develop specific strategies for becoming a leader.
Each of the five stand-alone case studies are well-written and interesting. What significance they have in common, however, and why these in particular were chosen remains a mystery. The handful of summary pages that begin and end each profile, and the regular interruptions asserting that the protagonist’s example provides a “key lesson for today’s leaders,” do not really add much.
Dozens of leadership admonishments are sprinkled throughout the narratives:
• “Each leader has to determine which trade-offs he or she is willing to make.”
• “Keen observational skills and subsequent reflection are essential for leaders today.”
• “Focus and discipline are essential tools for leaders.”
And so on.
The issue isn’t that these aphorisms are inherently objectionable. It is that they distract from the otherwise interesting stories, which often are not the most compelling demonstrations of the adages in question.
Professor Koehn concludes with the assertion that “for all the diversity among these five individuals, the threads that connect them are considerably more important.” This is far from evident. Given the broad definition of leadership borrowed from Mr. Wallace, hundreds, if not thousands, of possibilities across time and geography could have made the cut for inclusion in “Forged in Crisis.”
Some of what are identified as shared leadership qualities appear to flow more from the particular set of people whom Professor Koehn decided to examine closely rather than speak to some intrinsic nature of leadership.
There is also something circular in the suggestion that “the power of writing and writing well” is an important inherent leadership lesson — “Leaders today need to consider the kind of writing these five people did” — rather than the unsurprising result of the fact she chose to profile five individuals who happened to be adept writers.
The overarching connection between these stories, according to Professor Koehn, is that these leaders were made, not born. By this she seems to mean that, although “each came into the world with a given set of endowments,” all five “were made into effective leaders as they walked their respective paths, tried to understand what was happening around them, and encountered failure and disappointment.”
This general description of how human beings develop seems reasonable enough. But the argument that each of those profiled had succeeded in cultivating some specific shared set of transcendental qualities called “effective leadership” is not convincing.
In the case of Shackleton, Professor Koehn is strangely silent, beyond a passing reference to ongoing financial problems, about his string of spectacularly disastrous business ventures outside of the expeditions that are her focus.
The point isn’t that these detract from the extraordinary accomplishment of saving his crew. Rather it is that there is something misguided in the notion that a single type of leadership — however defined or developed — would be equally effective in accomplishing every kind of task and objective.
Several years ago, Professor Koehn apparently came close to releasing these profiles with a different publisher and a more modest subtitle: “The Making of Five Legendary Leaders.” There is much to enjoy in the current version, but I have a feeling I would have preferred the earlier effort.
While there are certainly shared qualities worth exploring among exceptional individuals, as with the best Harvard Business School cases, the greatest benefit usually comes from letting these extraordinary stories speak for themselves.