Her new book is “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn talks about her new book, “Forged In Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”
You can listen to the entire interview here or in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as a leader, not a follower, unless you’re Chrissy Teigen, whom I would follow anywhere. In my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Play music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chair is Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School. She spent 10 years writing her latest book, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” which seems so pertinent right now. It examines the rise of five leaders who had to overcome a crisis — including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson — and shows how their stories might inspire us. We need a lot of inspiration, Nancy. Welcome to Recode Decode.
Nancy Koehn: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here, Kara.
Tell me how you got to be the historian of Harvard Business School. How does that happen?
You know, way led onto way, as Robert Frost would say. I graduated from Harvard’s history department and got a chance to apply as a lecturer at Harvard Business School. I just thought, “Hell, that sounds really interesting. I don’t know anything about business, but I’ll figure it out,” and I went. Just leapt over the cliff.
What history were you studying?
Believe it or not, I was a graduate student and my dissertation was about 18th century England and what were the British ministers thinking when they did things like the Stamp Tax.
Right. Oh, wow. The Stamp Tax. That’s a hot topic.
That’s a kind of a stretch from the Harvard Business School, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I ended up there. Didn’t know where the …
Why were you interested in that? I’m going to go back just a little. Why were you interested in the Stamp Tax?
Because I wanted to understand how intelligent, educated people in Whitehall could be looking to the West and thinking such very different things than people like Patrick Henry or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson were thinking.
Right. It didn’t end well for them.
Right. And talk about disruption. There was unintended … I wanted to understand, where did that unintended disruption come from?
And where was the decision-making around it?
And what were the choices they made? They had no idea. People like George Grenville, who authored the Stamp Tax, they had no idea that what they did was going to cause such a firebomb in places like Boston or Philadelphia. They were trying to raise revenue. They were doing something … And not close down the government in Whitehall in 1765 and keep a far-flung empire afloat.
Right, right. So it was unintended consequences.
Right, without knowledge.
So I was fascinated by that, how good intentions cause such very big surprises. That’s what I had written about when I got hired to go teach business history at the Harvard Business School.
Business history. That’s something that people … History is not something that businesses look at very much.
No, they do not.
They don’t remember anything. They think they do, but they don’t.
That’s right. A few CEOs will tell you candidly that on their nightstand are biographies. They’re serious. They read them and they try and learn from them, but no one goes to the Harvard Business School to study history. Very few leaders that I’ve coached over the years spend a lot of time thinking about the past and what it might teach us about the present.
The Harvard Business School, at that time, in the early ’90s, had a very robust cottage industry called business history. Where it became very valuable is in your turf, Kara, in your domain, because what we did in the course I started teaching, a second-year course, 450 MBAs took it in 1993, ’94, ’95, is try and understand the rhymes of past industrial revolutions with what was then being called “the computer revolution” that became the smartphone revolution that became the digital revolution.
A lot of students were looking at John Rockefeller and saying, “Hmm. Is Rockefeller like Jeff Bezos by 2000? Can we understand what some of these new pioneers in the digital frontier are doing by understanding what other path-breakers did?”
It actually was a very popular class and in the process of teaching it, I learned a hell of a lot about organizations, business and entrepreneurship, which is were I spent the bulk of my time, actually teaching entrepreneurship.
Right. We’re going to get to entrepreneurship and historically what makes one, because I think there are commonalities in a lot of things. One of the things that’s striking about the tech industry, we’re going to focus more on the tech industry, is the lack of interest in history, lack of interest in … Thinking that they’re breaking new ground almost all the time, and that aren’t any lessons to be learned.
You know what? I’m flummoxed by that, but I’m an outlier, I’m a historian. I can’t read history, I can’t discover a new moment. I was just reading a Teddy Roosevelt speech from 1910 and realizing everything he’s saying about daring greatly and moving into a new arena is relevant to new businesses, even community activism, today.
Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it does rhyme.” I don’t understand why someone that’s in a brand-new industry, or relatively young industry, isn’t fascinated by other folks that were in young industries before them.
Because, you know, the old … I can’t remember who said it. “There’s nothing new under the sun” is a famous quote. It’s the Greeks, essentially. But they feel like everything is new under the sun, that they’re doing things that have never been done, or that they have to kill the past. I think that’s really part of it. Or if they’re pulled down by the past, that will hinder them from future progress.
Maybe, but that’s a kind of dangerous naivety, I think.
Yeah, well, welcome to Silicon Valley.
Or maybe it’s hubris. “We’re brand new and we’re cool.” That’s hubris, because one, it’s not true and second, those that don’t know the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes. There’s no question. We see that over, and over, and over.
If I were advising almost anybody in your neck of the woods, it would be, “Pick up a biography of pioneer, a business pioneer if you want, and learn from what he or she learned and the mistakes they made and the grounds they plowed, because that’s where the gold is for today.”
Right, where you can learn lessons. We’ll get to who they should look at in a second, but … You were doing historical research on leadership …
I was doing … I went to the Harvard Business School, wasn’t supposed to spend more than two years there but got infected with the pragmatism of the place. I began writing a book called “Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust From Wedgwood to Dell” and I got really interested, Kara, in these stories of these six entrepreneurs who had basically won on the demand side.
That is, someone like Howard Schultz, who didn’t have any proprietary technology, but figured out, before you and I knew we needed a double tall latte to begin our day, that consumers wanted that, and so competed on the demand side.
Or someone like Michael Dell. I mean, his game wasn’t really a game of technological innovation …
It was simple.
It was about consumer customization and then creating the value chain to support that.
I was fascinated by people that could build competitive advantage in a relatively new market. That got me interested in the curious alchemy, both inside and out, of entrepreneurs. I spent a lot of time teaching entrepreneurs, advising entrepreneurs, being involved in some startup companies that came out of the Harvard Business School.
Harvard Business School has a lot of actual fans in Silicon Valley. Frances Frei is there now at Uber.
You bet, you bet. And there have been a lot … Even though we’re in Boston, our necks are craned West a lot of the time. It was a very, very interesting way station along my intellectual and personal journey to try and understand what makes entrepreneurs tick and how do we understand their impact.
That led me, ultimately, into leadership, because as you and your listeners know really well, it’s one thing to start a company, it’s another thing to build the organization capabilities you need to keep it sustainable and vibrant.
There’s such a disconnect.
So that work on “Brand New” brought me into the curious, often cliché, often eyes-glazingly cliché field of leadership. I was determined, as a historian, to say, “Can I figure out something gritty and serious and accessible to say about leadership?” That took me to this new book, which took me forever and a day to write, called “Forged in Crisis.”
Right. One of the things — before we get to talking about the book in the next section — when you think about that, there is sections of entrepreneurship and that’s one of them. One of them is the first idea and the persistence, and we’re going to talk about what commonalities exist. But then it is the actual leadership. I have seen so many companies that I’ve covered falter at that moment. Even a promising idea. You think of Dell leadership. It’s always a crisis of leadership in some way.
Or allowing leaderships to … I was just thinking about … I just asked a question of a Facebook exec, if they had enough irritants in the leadership, because they all agree with each other and maybe they can’t do it.
Exactly. That’s a great way of thinking about it.
They didn’t even want to think about that. I was like, “Wow, you’re not even thinking about it.” You know what I mean? It was an interesting … they weren’t being hostile or anything like that, but they felt like getting along was great and I thought getting along in this instance led to the problems they’re having. It was a really interesting thing.
People don’t look at the way we build leaders in tech as leadership being the most important part of it, which is interesting. They look at the entrepreneur part of it or the …
They do, but you know the founder piece … If you think about founders who have successfully made the transition from a founder to an institution builder …
Three. In tech.
There aren’t very many. If you think about them, they are mostly men in Silicon Valley that have also had to transform themselves at some very fundamental level because the things that take you into the successful IPO are not the same qualities within yourself that bring you to a place where, “I’m going to create a company for the ages.”
Right. I think you could just say Gates, Bezos and Jobs.
Yeah, absolutely. I might say Howard Schultz, as well, at Starbucks, at a low-tech industry.
He wasn’t a founder, though.
I’m doing early founders.
Those are good examples, but they’re three out of, I don’t know, scores of people you keep tabs on.
Yeah, it often is. Some of them do step aside. Like Pierre Omidyar stepped aside at eBay and made way for a better leader, which was interesting. Smart enough and adult enough to do that. Most of them aren’t. They just grow in the job and grow badly.
I think Zuckerberg has tried and will eventually transform himself. I mean, he has, obviously. He’s the most important company and most valued company in Silicon Valley. But I think that his struggle towards leadership is still ongoing, which is interesting.
Yeah, I’m sure you’re right, just from my own knowledge as someone from the outside thinking about what’s happening to these individuals. I think Jeff Bezos is a very interesting example, because in the last three years, it seems to be — particularly in the last two years — you see someone that, at least for outsiders looking in, is trying to, or seems to be trying to establish an external footprint. Not just for his company, but also for himself.
It’s more than buying the Washington Post. It’s about someone now that’s saying, “Hmm. Now there’s a bigger cape I have to wear, a larger mantle that I think exists on my shoulders in this company and in the imprint of the company.” It will be very interesting to see how Jeff Bezos steps out, so to speak, and expands.
Well, I think he’s very deft. Again, I was saying to an earlier guest that he’s an adult. It’s easier when you’re an adult and when you don’t start from early on having …
What happens in Silicon Valley, and we can talk about this, is that people get licked up and down all day. They suddenly transform themselves into a different person because of the negative that they get.
What’s interesting to me about Bezos that is a corollary to what you just said, Kara, is that he’s always had a kind of — again, from the outside looking at him, I’m never met him — a kind of emotional forbearance. So he’s not someone who’s felt the need to necessarily download his reactions. He’s been, it seems to be, deft.
He’s an adult.
I don’t know how else to say it. He was old when he started. He was older when he started. A lot of these people are kids and they aren’t fully formed and therefore get sucked up into behaviors or arrogance, in a way, that’s really damaging. And they never recover from … You don’t see a lot of … We’ll get to that in a second.
You became this historian and what you do now is, you look at historical leaders or entrepreneurs. Because that’s the interest at Harvard, though, entrepreneurship.
There’s a huge interest in “How do I launch myself into an entrepreneurial path?” and there’s a big interest in “If I’m going to do that, how do I grow myself into someone who’s an effective leader?” Our students often see those things, refreshingly, as being connected. How able they are to execute on that charge they put before themselves is a more open question.
What I do now is teach, until recently, until this year, when I’m teaching a course on the emotional awareness of leaders …
Oh, that would be nice.
Very interesting. From the ground up, from nuts and bolts. Very critical stuff. I have taught a big course called “Power and Glory in Turbulent Times: The History and Leadership from Henry V to Steve Jobs.” We end with a case on Mark Zuckerberg and a case on Steve Jobs.
And we study not just their business accomplishments or their business mistakes, but the arc of their life. We get a sense of, who did these people grow into with the assumption or the achievement of great power and influence? So it’s a course for the students in, “Hmm. What do I learn about myself from looking at Estee Lauder or Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs or Katharine Graham …”
Who becomes a real heroine to a lot of my female students who don’t know about her.
It’s a really interesting course to teach. To watch the students grapple with the biographies and then try and cut and paste from those on to their own sense of themselves.
Mm-hmm. All right, we’re talking with Nancy Koehn. She’s written a book. She’s a Harvard professor? Is that … Harvard Business School.
I’m a tenured professor at the Harvard Business School.
Business School. She’s spent the last 10 years writing her latest book, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.” It examines the rise of five leaders who’ve had to overcome a crisis.
When we get back, we’re going to talk with her about the book, and what are the aspects of leadership, and also, what has to change for an entrepreneur to become a leader in a sustainable business.
We’re here in the red chair with Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School. We’re going to be talking about her book, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”
Nancy, you looked at five leaders around leadership. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Rachel Carson. I don’t know who the other two were. You can talk about them.
I want to start first, talk about the importance of leadership and what it means, because I think it gets twisted around in our society.
It does. It’s become such a cliché that we’re just bored hearing the word, especially right now, given the schoolyard mudslinging that goes for national governance.
I use a definition in the book that I stumbled on many years ago from David Foster Wallace, the American writer. This was from an essay he wrote about the first John McCain presidential campaign. He said, “Real leaders are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own weakness, and selfishness, and laziness, and fears, and get us to do harder, better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
I think that captures a whole lot about leaders in all kinds of fields. Companies, movements, governments, religious institutions. This book is about individuals who made themselves in the midst of astounding volatility, and while they were down on their knees, screaming at the sky in confusion, made themselves into those kind of people. And they did it over and over again.
One of the things, you’ve got “Forged in Crisis.” I think that’s where most leaders are forged, right?
I think that’s how we … That’s our cliché of leadership, for sure.
Let’s talk about the leaders you looked at. I know people … I don’t like to say commonalities in leadership, because I think that’s probably another canard, that there is commonalities in leadership. There’s lots of ways to be a leader. I think we have a vision of a leader, of sort of a strong, white-guy hero or someone who’s firm, versus other ways to lead.
You picked the leaders you picked. I want to know why. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Rachel Carson. Who were the other two?
Ernest Shackleton is the opening story. He’s fourth of the five. An Antarctic explorer whose ship went down off the coast of Antarctica and has to get his men home.
Yes. Many books have been written about him.
The fifth person is the least well known in the book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a clergyman, a pastor, in Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and becomes, immediately, a member of the resistance to Hitler. He gets more and more radical in his resistance as the noose of Nazi evil tightens, and by 1939 has joined a group of double agents within the Nazi government working to assassinate Hitler in order to overthrow the Third Reich.
His story is not as well known, but it’s an astounding story about resistance and being true to your muscles of moral courage as an authoritarian, an increasingly dangerous leader in his government, take hold.
Let’s start with him. What caused that to … Talk about the qualities of leadership and what forged him. Because a lot of people didn’t see it coming. They don’t, or they cooked slowly, let’s …
They cook slowly. He refused to not admit that the lobster, or the animal of goodness, was boiling very rapidly in the pot. He could see right away, because the Nazis, as some of your listeners will well know, actually were very quick in doing a whole bunch of things. Closing down civil liberties, getting rid of privacy laws, burning books within six months of taking power, announcing all these restrictions on Jewish business and other kinds of activity.
It was clear they were going to have enemies of the state and all kinds of people were in trouble because of it. Bonhoeffer just said, “Look. This man and what he represents — and the people that are supporting him — mean terrible trouble, not only for Germany, but he’s a war monger and there’s going to be a big conflict.”
He just set to work trying to educate other people in that same vein. What’s so interesting, and ultimately important, for our moment in the story is how, as the noose of power tightened, people can see what’s happening, but they put their hands over their eyes and say, “I’m not going to get involved. I’m going to allow this to be so I can be safe because I’m scared if I stand up.”
One of the really interesting lessons is, how do you find the chutzpah and the grit and the self-motivated fuel to keep on resisting, and how do you bring others along on that journey?
Interestingly, Kara, to something you said earlier, this was not a hard-charging, super-aggressive, celebrity kind of guy. He breaks a lot of our falls and dangerous myths or preconceptions about leaders. He’s articulate. He’s serious, but he’s a quiet person. He’s a kind person. He’s increasingly trying to develop his own muscles of courage, because he’s scared. He’s trying to figure out how to stay under the radar of the Gestapo and the SS while, “I try and figure out what in the hell we’re going to do against this increasingly obvious madman.” And last but not least, “How am I going to keep my eyes open to what’s really happening?”
It’s almost a primer for those serious citizens today that want to be aware and active in a way that is consistent.
Right. How do you imagine he thought that was a serious time and others did not? What is it within him that has a leadership quality where he’s like, “I’m …” Because you can be wrong. You can be over-resistant or just obstructive.
That’s another trenchant question. I think one was just, “I refuse to look away.” Now, a second piece that’s really important to this story … This is the only spy story in the book and if any of these get optioned as a films, this is the one that has all the dramatic tension, because he becomes a double agent.
Here’s the hook. His brother-in-law … He was from a very well-connected — he’s the only person in the book that’s from a well-connected family. His brother-in-law, a gentleman named Hans Dohnányi, was assistant secretary to the Minister of Justice, so he was already inside the Nazi government. He had inside information. Years before we get to the Wannsee Conference in the early ’40s, that codified the Final Solution, the extermination of European Jewry, Dohnányi knew what was going on. He knew. He saw the writing and he could tell Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer saw, with unmistakable …
He had good information.
He had … There you go. Very good information. And he refused to turn away from it.
Right, right. Exactly. Or not believe it.
Or not believe it. Exactly.
Which I think a lot of … “Oh, it’s not going to be that bad. They don’t really mean it.” That’s always the one.
“They don’t really mean it.” Exactly.
I always am like … I remember when tech was upset every time Trump turned around and screwed them, essentially, after saying he wouldn’t. I said, “He said something, like on immigration, 76 times on the trail,” and they were like, “Well, yeah, but he doesn’t mean it.” I said, “But he said it 76 times. Don’t you think he meant it?” “Well, it was just campaigning.” I was like, “That’s a lot of times to say it.” Of course he’s followed through on what he said, which I think … Why wouldn’t he?
Muslim travel ban. Two months in office.
Why wouldn’t he? He said it. I don’t assume cynicism at all times by people. What was interesting is the willingness of them to believe that it was a lie on the campaign trail, which I thought it wasn’t. I said, “He made a promise to his voters. He said it. He seems to believe it. He has a historical predilection for this.”
What was interesting is that they wouldn’t even entertain that he meant what he said. I said the famous Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them.” I believed him. So I wasn’t so mad at him as I was with the tech leaders, who continually kept dismissing it, which was interesting.
Let’s talk about Abraham Lincoln. Obviously, he’s such an iconic figure. Obviously, so much crisis, ended in the tragedy. Talk about those leaderships, because he did push through things that he even was uncomfortable with speaking of.
Very much so. I tried to add to the already very crowded field. This could have been a book on Lincoln, and in a fit of humility, it did not become that. The world doesn’t need another book [on Lincoln].
But here’s what’s new in the story for your listeners about Lincoln. One is the emotional experience of, what did it feel like to live Abraham Lincoln’s life, walking down those halls and not sleeping in the White House. It’s extraordinarily wrenching for him. What many of your listeners may not know is that he, at times, despaired so much that he said, on several occasions and worried enough of his Cabinet ministers at one point that they took action, that he felt ready to kill himself.
Part of the story is, how do you keep on keeping on in the midst of the perfect storm? I think what’s really interesting from the standpoint of the kind of things you talk about in Recode is, thinking about Lincoln not as the Commander in Chief, not as the Great Abolitionist, not as the brilliant political calculator. Think about Abraham Lincoln as a change leader who articulated the change over and over again.
One of the things we don’t see in Silicon Valley and we don’t see in Washington, among all the turbulence, is leaders that are willing to say, “Let me frame the stakes of what’s going on. Here’s the moment at which we find ourselves. Here’s where we want to be headed, through this turbulence. Here’s what’s at stake. Here’s what the trade-offs are. Here’s why they’re ultimately worth making.”
Whether we’re talking about the negative effects of kids doing too much with technology, or we’re talking about a globalizing world which America can’t be an isolationist on immigration policy any longer. Those days are over. Here was someone who stepped up to that plate in letters, in speeches, in all kinds of forms …
And communicated the large sweep of the change. That was tremendously important to holding the nation together during the war.
Do you know who’s consistent? Trump. Trump is consistent. See, that’s …
He’s absolutely consistent.
On social media, now, it’s twitchy and twittery and short, but it’s consistent everywhere, every place. It never changes. What’s interesting is how the president always can’t believe it hasn’t changed. I’m like …
But it’s what you just said about Trump’s policy on immigration. He is as he appears. We can now make our opinions and make our best on him acting from that place.
Well, what’s interesting is, people say he’s not going to do what he doesn’t really believe in and I’m like, “Why? Where’s the evidence otherwise?” Because it seems like he’s using his platform very effectively to continue, because he doesn’t actually have shame.
He has no shame.
People … And that’s fine. People seem to be angry about that. I’m like, “I don’t know. He just seems to do what he says he’s going to do, so why are you consistently surprised, or clutching your pearls, by someone who says the same thing over and over and over again?”
It’s a little bit, though, like why were people at other moments, at great wrenching change at the top of a nation, unable to see what was coming down from a leader?
I think one of the things you’re talking about is the articulation … I think probably one leader that does that in Silicon Valley is Elon Musk. He does repeat things over and over, about AI. He doesn’t get off of a theme … He continues to say the same thing, or in different ways and in different modes, or when he’s announcing these … So some of it is marketing for himself and for his company. Mostly for his companies. Or he does these dramatic, like, “I’m only going to take $ 50 billion if I succeed,” or whatever the heck he’s doing on any moment, which is a lot about marketing. But it is about articulation of a thought process that stays consistent.
I think so, and to your point, I think it’s about, where does this fit in to the larger sweep? If he talks about space travel, he’s talking about in the context of where we are as a global village right now and why this is important. Very few people that we have access to in our crowded media moment at a governing level, or a leadership level, are doing that. It’s incredibly important.
Well, isn’t it hard because the mediums are so twitchy and need to change so quickly that nobody can sustain a cogent thought for very long?
Yeah, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it. It is hard. And the same thing is, making it twitchy makes it more important to give us some context.
Yeah. Just the other … I’ve been really tsk tsk-y at tech about its responsibility for a year. It’s almost like, “When are you going to stop that?” I’m like, “Never. How about never? I’m going to keep …” It’s a really interesting phenomena. But then I did feel pressure. Maybe I should stop that and move on to another thing. Then I’m like, “No, I think I won’t.” It’s an interesting question of being able to stick to a thematic thing in today’s twitchy … It would be interesting to see how Abraham Lincoln would react in a Twitter universe.
Well, you know, he was in his own Twitter moment. The telegraph was a kind of Twitter or smartphone at the time. What people forget about Abraham Lincoln … All these executives, when I talk about Lincoln and leadership lessons of his presidency, say, “Oh, he had no social media,” but he did have the equivalent of social media.
He is control central. The stuff that is pouring into him every single day, and I’m not just talking about media, I’m talking about every single telegraph from the front, hundreds of constituents walking through. This man is worrying about getting socks to the troops in Virginia as much as he’s worried about how in the hell is he going to avoid impeachment hearings in 1864, as to whether he should sue for a negotiated peace. This guy is besieged by the equivalent of social media.
And, still to your point, he stays on message, so to speak. Over and … “I would save the Union,” and “By 1862, it’s going to be a Union without slavery.” That consistency is so important for a nation literally wrenched apart by the carnage of the Civil War.
And to get back to … I’m still reading, forever, the book on Hamilton, the actual book, not the musical. The amount of writing and things, newspapers, they do back and forth under Greek names, often, was fascinating. The correspondence was … It seems even harder to do those. It was all about persuasion and putting your stakes out there.
It was. Let’s go back to what you said at the very beginning. We think we’re brand new, having these outlets to communicate a particular position or a particular viewpoint. We’re not. The pamphlets that really defined … The pamphlet wars that you’re talking about that helped define the framework on this country in the 1770s and 1780s were not so dissimilar to today, absolutely.
To what people with … And harder, in a lot of ways.
What was the lesson, if you had to take away from, I’m going to go to each of them, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership. Consistency …
A very edible lesson for your listeners is, when the stakes are high and you’re emotionally hot under the collar, do nothing right away. Don’t hit send, don’t hit post, don’t hit tweet. Do nothing. There’s all kinds of examples of Lincoln having enough emotional control, even when he was really upset, to do nothing and actually making a huge beneficial …
Do nothing in the moment. Just control yourself enough to wait. I think that’s a really powerful lesson.
Ernest Shackleton’s most powerful lesson, again, very …
Who got caught up in …
This explorer, he’s got to get 27 men home and all he’s got is three rowboats.
In the Arctic, right?
He’s off the coast of Antarctica.
He’s got three rowboats and some canned goods. And rifles to kill seals. They got nothing else. They got no Twitter, they got no Waze …
Not real good jackets.
They’ve got no Instagram to take pictures and show people where they are. They’re on the ice for well over a year, floating on icebergs.
What he learns and what he demonstrates, over and over again, that determines the success of his mission, because it keeps his men believing in him, back to leadership, and in their own ability to survive this, is, every single day, he shows up, out of his tent or late at night, even if he didn’t sleep, even if he had six hours of, “Oh my God, I have no idea how I’m going to get home and get this done,” he shows up in service to the mission. Every day, he says, “Keep your things packed, lads, we’re going to go home.” That ability to, again, not disgorge his … the leader …
Not disgorge his own anxieties real time, turned out to be critical to keeping his followers believing that they could do the impossible. Show up in service to your mission. A little forbearance, a little control, serves you well.
I think the most important lesson on Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, escaped slave …
Contemporary of Abraham Lincoln.
Knew Lincoln. Lincoln could never have done what he did in ending slavery without all the groundwork at the grassroots level that Douglass had been doing for years on the abolitionist circuit.
Douglass’s most important lesson is, when you’re really, really scared, take one step into the fear. Into the fear, not away from it. Don’t duck it. Don’t pull out your phone and try to scroll it away. Move into it. That’s a really …
What’s the fear he moved into?
His fear, and a very defining one at various points, is, one, I’m going to be recaptured. In one really telling, pivotal, critical moment in his life, “The overseer is going to kill me by beating me,” because that was a real fear. He decides to confront the overseer and it really defines the rest of his life.
“I’m going to be killed for writing my autobiography. I’m going to be recaptured.” He’s got a lot of personal fears. And then the most important, pervasive fear, intellectually and morally, is, “I won’t be able to accomplish … I won’t be able to get the incredibly entrenched roots of slavery ripped up and eliminated in my lifetime.” Then after that, “I won’t be able to get the vote for women,” which is where he turns after the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, is passed.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I think the most important lesson is, “You can make yourself a great deal …”
Explain who Dietrich Bonhoeffer …
Dietrich Bonhoeffer …
The German again.
The German Nazi resister, who finds his life and his position becoming more and more dangerous and more precarious as he goes. It’s important to remember he was a very young man when he’s doing this. He’s born in 1906, so when the Nazis come to power, he’s 24. When the [second] World War breaks out, he’s 33.
He’s a very young man, so he’s developing his muscles of moral courage. He’s doing it, not in one fell swoop. Leaders aren’t Supermen or Superwomen. They’re made, bit by bit. We get stronger. We get better. He’s developing it and he keeps working to get braver and writing about how difficult that is.
We can all get braver, if you will, moment by moment, if we keep on, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have written in “Option B,” working on our muscles of moral courage and resilience. So that’s a really important lesson.
I think the lesson of Rachel Carson, who is the environmentalist whose book, published in 1962, “Silent Spring” is arguably one of the most important books of the 20th century. It, more than any other single act, launched the modern environmental movement.
I think the … She’s battling, as many of your listeners probably won’t know, metastatic breast cancer as she writes this book. She’s racing the clock to try and finish before her life ends.
I think one of her most important lessons is how she understood that a lot of your life, you’re not necessarily making a huge, bold splash in the external world. You are gathering. I have this whole section in the book about the gathering seasons of our lives, when we’re learning and investing in ourselves, and not necessarily checking an item off the bucket list.
You can’t do really important, good things if you don’t spend some time gathering. I worry that in our twitchy moment, we’re so impatient to have X or Y, externally, right now, that we’re not laying the groundwork within ourselves to become the kind of people we need to become to do the worthy things.
Right. You don’t get those moments. It’s interesting. Gates always does this Book Week and stuff like that. I’m actually going away for a week to do that, to just think.
That’s gathering, right?
Yeah. I have to go to a place that doesn’t have internet, because I just can’t …
I’m addicted. You know what I mean? I have to remove myself from that equation, which is going to be hard.
I bet you’ll come back feeling like you’ve gathered a whole bunch of good stuff in there.
Hopefully. Or really well slept, I think. One of the other. Which is fine.
That’s part of gathering, too.
Yeah, exactly. When we get back, we’re talking to Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School, about leadership. Her new book is called “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.” There’s a lot of turbulent times right now.
I want to go through some qualities of leadership that you think are necessary now, some of the ones that some of the … This is a tech show, what some of the tech leaders have shown and what they need to do, given how much they’re under siege lately, and deservedly so, and how they leadership their way out of it.
We’re here with Nancy Koehn. She is a historian at the Harvard Business School. Her new book is about leadership. It’s called “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times” and it examines the rise of five leaders who had to overcome crisis, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson, and others.
There’s all kinds of way to become a leader. Let’s focus first on the general thing. Are there any commonalities or not? I don’t think there are, but maybe there are. Maybe there’s certain qualities that you need. Because there’s a different quality from being an entrepreneur to starting a company, which is not leadership. Probably persistence, ability to say yes when others are saying no. There’s certain commonalities of entrepreneurship, correct?
Absolutely. How you figure out what good calculated risks to take.
Luck. Luck is some of it.
Some of it’s just opportunity, meaning preparation, as Oprah Winfrey said over and over again. A colleague of mine once said that entrepreneurs are defined by being opportunity driven where so many other people are resource constrained, in terms of …
Right. “You can’t do that.”
What they’re listening to and thinking about. Or as Estee Lauder, the cosmetics entrepreneur, once said, “No is just another word for how and when.” That’s a lot of what you’re talking about when you talk about the kind of resilience and stick-to-it-ive-ness of entrepreneurs.
I think people in Silicon Valley love the Thomas Edison quote a little too much. “If I haven’t failed 500 times, I just found …” You know, I mean, “I found 500 ways it didn’t work. I didn’t fail.”
Exactly, right? That kind of stick-to-it-ive-ness is really important. But when we’re talking about leadership, I’m on your page. I don’t really talk a lot about common aspects. I think there are threads that connect these stories in this book and I think some of those threads are relevant to the Valley, or to Silicon Valley and tech.
One is that each of these people discovered, or stumbled into, or knew it from the time they were young, like Douglas being a slave and teaching himself to read, which he did because it was illegal to teach slaves to read, he did in a very ingenious, entrepreneurial way, they discover some kind of mighty purpose. The purpose, over time, becomes something more than, “I’m going to make a lot of money,” or, “I’m going …”
It can’t be money.
It can’t ever be money.
The mighty purpose is not about money.
No leader I’ve ever … No real leader does money matter.
And no real leader ever settles for “it’s about money,” because if you’re really defined by and shaped by and motivated, especially in your darkest moments, by the power of the purpose, the North Star you’re headed towards, it can’t be money. It has to be something that involves a larger group of people and … As Martin Buber, the 20th century German philosopher once said, “A might purpose is always about the movement from I to thou,””from me and my agenda to something bigger and more transcendent that’s about other people. The first thing is, you’ve got to find that.
Yeah. I think a lot of people do think it’s about money or ego, which are both the same thing, as far as …
They are exactly the same thing.
One of the things … I was talking to someone who thinks of themselves as a financial leader and is not, is just such a small-minded person. They were driving me crazy about something. I said … It’s an old saying. I said, “You’re so poor, all you have is money,” because they didn’t have a bigger idea of anything, in terms of involving people. I found it really interesting that he thought of himself as a leader, which was … I think he was super disturbed when I said that.
Then you wonder about how much of that kind of behavior or downloaded thinking is about how we try and justify what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.
I’m so struck … I do a lot of coaching. I’ve been at the Harvard Business School for 26 years. You quickly see with our alumni, they’re either getting bigger after they hit 45 in spirit, what they’re up to, or they’re getting smaller by degrees and figuring out, what are the mental gymnastics …
They need to take. What lies …
I have to construct to justify what I’m doing.
One is a larger sense of purpose. Often because of a crisis.
A second, really critical … Often because they find themselves in a crisis and discover it. Or they’re in a crisis, they’ve got this purpose out there, hovering, and they’re like, “I’m going to get through this by hook or crook, because that purpose is important.” It becomes like a kind of rope they grab onto and put in the mountain to climb up with. Then they infect other people with a sense of purpose because it’s personally meaningful to them.
I think the second aspect we don’t talk about very much … We talk about EQ, but I’m not … You know, Emotional Quotient, emotional intelligence. I like the term emotional awareness, because emotional awareness is about how you lead yourself, how you get up every day and define the hundreds of decisions you’ll make, that if you’re in a position of any kind of authority, other people are taking cues from.
We forget. A lot of people forget, especially in the Valley, I think. Maybe in lots of new businesses. When you’re in the position of the kind of authority that many of the people you talk with and work with are, all eyes are on you. You’ve got to show up and all those little choices you make are things that people are taking cues from. Including how you’re dealing with the person at Starbucks, or how you’re …
I think bad behavior does …
How you’re handling your assistants in the office, or engaging with them.
I think a really important piece is, what kind of emotional awareness do you have about yourself, what you’re up to, what kind of control you have, and how much of your own humanity — defined in benevolent, higher-road terms — are you harnessing each day as part of that awareness, to work with the people and make the people capable of doing harder, better things than they could do on their own. So think a big piece of it is emotional awareness.
A third aspect, never talked about, as far as I can tell, in the Zip codes that you and I both operate in and the overlap therein, is all of these people made times to write their thoughts down. Not necessarily to tweet them out and not necessarily as a to-do list. They wrote. They had typewriters in a few instances. But they wrote.
They wrote because writing proved to be a way to parse out their thoughts and their own emotions in a way that helped them think more clearly. One of the things we’re not teaching anybody in schools of leadership or executive seminars is, writing is a tool for helping you think more clearly and you can use it to lead yourself and your organization.
I worry that in our world of emojis, that we’re losing the ability to do the hard stuff, which is to think and write.
Yep. I think about that. I thought about that the other day. I just realized I’m not writing as much. I’m tweeting more, but the stuff I’m tweeting I could write. You know what I mean? I could actually … Which is interesting. They’re actually interesting thoughts, I just … It’s a way of getting out ideas.
It is. And here’s another kicker for the tech industry. There’s now beginning to be pretty good research that if you write with a paper and pencil or a pen and paper, your thought processes are different than if you tap.
Ah, interesting. Of course.
You actually turn out to be a little bit more creative, a little bit more …
I just have bad handwriting.
You discover more … Think about it, right?
I don’t do it because I hate … I have bad handwriting and I hate …
Well, but … I’m not trying to convert you. I’m suggesting …
I’m going to use a typewriter. I’ll use a typewriter.
That there’s something interesting … I’ve done this a lot …
I just bought a typewriter.
I just bought a typewriter.
I’ll bet it’s a little different.
I’m good on a typewriter, better than on a computer keyboard.
That’s why I bought the typewriter, because it slows me down.
That’s the point. It slows you down so you pull things out of the nooks and crannies within yourself that you might not have pulled out.
Right. And I make mistakes I can’t correct. That’s the other thing.
And those are useful, because then you go back and you see, “Oh, no, I wanted to use it in this way.”
Right. Yeah. It’s hard to do on a typewriter. You can’t go back.
You can’t go back.
You can, but you can’t.
Let’s talk a little bit about who you think are great leaders. I was thinking … As you were talking, I was thinking about … I’m going to just use tech, the ones I’m familiar with, but Reed Hastings from Netflix seems to have defined things really clearly. He’s stuck with them.
Other leaders … I do think Mark Zuckerberg’s someone who does evolve, whether you agree with him or not — and believe me, I’ve been super critical of some things they’ve done at Facebook. But I do think he tries to evolve it. You can see it in his essays and his struggling with the problems his company has created. That doesn’t forgive them, but it certainly is an interesting … Someone playing out, publicly.
Bezos doesn’t communicate that much, actually.
He does it by action, which is an interesting way to do it.
Jobs, obviously, was iconic, and mysterious, and fantastic. That’s …
And seems happier giving away his money than he did making it. At least to look at his face.
Jobs? Jobs didn’t give away. It’s Gates.
Oh, I’m sorry. Gates. Excuse me.
Yes, he is a better person.
Oh, I know a lot more about Steve Jobs. Very …
He didn’t give away much money.
He didn’t give away much money at all. Very, very brilliant and driven and, I think, in many way, expensive human being.
Yeah. Yeah. He, I think, got better as … People always talk about his illness, but most of the things that he created that are now memorable were happening when he was dying, which I thought was interesting.
That’s really … That’s a very … I never thought about … You’re absolutely right.
The last seven years, every single critical thing happened then. He did a lot before that, but the real things, the big things …
No, 2005 afterwards, you’re absolutely right, Kara. That’s really interesting. Yeah.
And he also didn’t think he was going to die, too. Even though it was clear he was. One of the questions we asked him at a Code conference in the last year of his life was, I think I asked him, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” Everyone had a sharp intake of breath because he looked really sickly. He had to have been the most lively person of anyone in the room. The sickest person, but the most lively, which is interesting. He was immediately like, “Well, television. Television’s a real …” He was acting as if he had all the time in the world, which I thought was either the most incredible, overwhelming lie to yourself or he really did think that.
Or it was genuine.
It was genuine. You couldn’t lie to yourself in the way he looked and stuff.
He was the most alive person I’ve ever seen of those leaders, which is interesting. Lots of faults and things like that, that he had, but one of the ones that I know that was … People would always say the reason he was successful was because he was heartless. I think the reason he was successful is because he was all heart, which, I think, is different. That manifested itself in a similar way, because all heart can make you tough, because you have to have it happen.
But let’s talk about what leadership qualities don’t work. I’ve been writing a lot about Uber and others. Talk about what … That, it seems like, one, it was a failure of leadership and, at the same time, to me — and I’m very obsessed with this right now — is the enablers around the leader.
Same thing with Trump. I’m not so much bothered by Trump as, say, the RNC person today saying, “So what if he asked the FBI Director?” She’s normalizing that in a way that’s really disturbing, how we voted. I’m not surprised he did that, I’m surprised others are supporting it. The same thing with Uber or disasters in Silicon Valley, it’s the enablers around people.
Yes. I think that’s an astute point. Many years ago, an entrepreneur named Jonathan Bush, who founded a tech health company called Athena Health, was student of mine.
Yep. Bush. He’s Bush’s nephew.
He’s the cousin of 43 and the nephew of 41. John asked me to join his board and he said — and this is to your point about irritants at the top of the podcast, Kara — he said, “You’ve got to have people who will flip you the bird. You simply do, so you can grow, so you can see things you wouldn’t see otherwise. It keeps you honest.”
What you’re talking about, and I agree with in the case of Uber, is a company that, at least from the outside, did not appear to have enough people saying to Travis or saying to Trump …
Who had some really strong qualities.
“This will not fly. This cannot fly. Are you kidding, Mr. President? Are you kidding, Travis?” And we didn’t see that, so no one called them to account. I agree with you. Have they … I want to shake the RNC person and some of Trump’s handlers and say, “Have you no shame?”
Right. At the same time, it’s not … What’s interesting is, there’s certain things they were getting from, let’s stick with Travis, that they were getting from him, which is the high growth, the aggression and everything else, so that they sublimated the things that would later kill this situation, which was interesting.
I always think about, what were they … We wrote about … They had the medical files of a rape victim. At the time, when I saw it, I was like, “Are you kidding me?” And they were like, “Yeah, I know.” It was as if I slapped them awake, then they started … People are like, “How did you get those stories?” I’m like, “The people are very ashamed they didn’t do anything at the time.” That’s who called me, finally. That’s who I got to.
It was all of them, because it was as if I slapped them out of a stupor. They knew at the time it was a problem, but something happened and then they were embarrassed and wanted to make up for it.
Well, but that’s happening in our country, too. The halls of national government were … We know that there are things that are terribly detrimental things to democracy, the sinews, the blood and muscle of our country, that are happening right now. And who’s speaking up? Who will speak the truth, is what you’re really talking about, in a small circle of top executives? It’s incredibly important.
But at the same time, you don’t want to be pearl-clutching about it.
No, that’s right, but anyone that’s gotten to that level understands, to use your word about Bezos, deftness. Telling the truth in those kind of circles is not about holding the cross and walking to Damascus and getting knocked off a horse. It’s about a kind of deftness. It’s also about having a group of leaders see that the road to riches and sustainability might not be paved in hard-charging aggression. That there are alternative routes.
Or it might have to change during the time.
We just have a little more time. I want to talk about a couple more things around leadership. When I think about successful organizations, I think a lot about cohesion. There’s a leader, typically a single leader or maybe one or two, often two in tech, actually … There’s often someone that balances the other person. It is often two, actually.
It’s two in most companies, I think, Kara.
Yeah, and two. One that doesn’t get as much attention as the other.
Who does because they’re more interesting.
The cohesion around a group of people. They don’t have to like each other. I was thinking of Google. I don’t think they all liked each other. They did for a while and then they didn’t because people get tired and stuff. But the cohesion they had was really important.
Same thing at Facebook. I think you see a lot of cohesion among them. The ones that are not successful are not cohesive in the beginning. What happens with cohesion is agreement in the extreme where nobody doubts anybody else. So there isn’t, as I said, an irritant.
Can you talk about how you change leadership styles over time? It seems like people get to be dancing monkeys and what works, works, works.
Someone in the leadership team has to be able to say, “We’re swapping out now.” Recognize that “we’re seeing no evil, hearing no evil,” whatever. “We’re drinking the Kool Aid.” Someone has to say, “We gotta change the beverage menu.”
How do you create that in an organization?
You surround yourself with at least some kind of informal consiglieres, if you’re a CEO or COO, that are outside the company that are keeping you honest. I know all kinds of leaders, across different businesses, that have risen to positions of power partly because they had their own informal board of directors, three or four people you trust that you’re bouncing stuff off on, and they’re people that can put those irritants in your head and then you can bring them deftly, but seriously, into the corner office. You gotta be able to do that, especially in a world like tech that’s changing all the time and in which today’s path to the North Star is likely to be obsolete in a year and a half.
Right. Why do they miss that? What’s interesting is, I’ve noticed about people that I’ve covered since the beginning, they suddenly become so smart because they’re rich or because they’re successful. It’s a really interesting thing, because then you … Very few, although some of them do, remain the same. I think what happens is they get — I use an expression. Again, I’ve used it — they get licked up and down all day and therefore believe it.
Again, we’re back to emotional awareness. Think about someone like Lincoln. He writes, in a very interesting letter in the middle of the war, when someone’s saying, “Lash out at this opponent,” he says, “What I deal in is too vast for malice.”
I see. Woo.
There’s someone who’s like, “I know what I’m doing. I am not going to show up in the arrogant cloak with the orb and scepter in terms of how I think about myself.” You’ve got to lead yourself in a way that keeps you, in some sense, grounded and not believing all the stories of sycophants, eating all that sycophantic pie that comes your way.
What are the qualities? Because I am reading this Hamilton biography. I think the most important person that sticks out here is not Hamilton, who could be petty, Jefferson, 100 percent petty, Madison …
Oh my God. Mean. Jefferson mean, too.
Washington. There’s someone. There’s a perfect example.
What happened? What did he have that caused … Because he saved the Republic.
Because he had the sense that “who I am and how I show up,” literally from, “No, we’re not going to call the president ‘his highness.’” He says that. “We’re a democracy.”
But beyond that. On the day-to-day level, how he balanced out people was really difficult. It was so touch and go.
I can’t imagine that in your world, in the world of tech, there isn’t that requirement, in some sense. You’re dealing with such ego, such high left-side brain development without the commensurate right-side brain development.
Great leaders, real leaders, like the kind we’re both agreeing on, are men and women who are like, “I’m grounded. My values, my character, my competence are aligned.” Now, you’re going to need to get along with Mr. Jefferson. He played peacemaker all the time, Washington did, among Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton.
And didn’t have to.
He didn’t have to, except that he recognized, back to cohesion, that they were going to try and figure out the foundations of this young, struggling country. We couldn’t be warring among ourselves all the time.
I think the single answer to, “How did Washington do this?” was, “With great sense of my own emotional awareness.” In terms he wouldn’t have used. He didn’t use those words. Harness to, “We gotta get this Republicship off the ground.”
A bigger picture.
All right. To finish up, qualities of leadership that are, I think, critical. I hate to do commonalities, because I don’t think there’s a case, but name two things that are critical and two things that are deadly to leadership.
All right. Let me start with the leadership no-no’s. Great leaders, real leaders, don’t throw their people, their mission, their office under the bus. Because you create a team that is running scared and not willing to make serious bets if you do that.
Not to mention the friction and divisiveness and toxicity of that.
So you don’t throw your people under the bus and you don’t, ultimately, demean the very office you’re in, demean the position of where you are, in the sense not of, “What’s our stock price?” or, “How many people did we hire this year?” or, “What’s our market cap and what’s our market share?” But in the sense of, “We’re building something that has a serious reason for being and we’re doing it for more than just our own pocketbooks and for more than just this month.”
The ability to hold on to the vast future that Lincoln talked about. Those are … You can’t be ripping what you’re doing apart, or demeaning it. Those are two really important leadership no-no’s.
What do great leaders always do? How do they always show up? I think the sense of humility, that we’re getting at with Washington and Lincoln. A sense of humility. A sense that “I’m part of something bigger, and I’m allying myself and motivating people for something worthy, that’s larger than just this second and this win.”
Here’s the crazy irony about that, about leaders discovering that and unleashing the power. Leaders that are really doing that move from I to thou. You can see a little bit of this in Satya Nadella at Microsoft. “We’re here for a bigger deal.”
When you discover that in yourself and can light it up in yourself, you get really powerful in a deeply appealing, contagious way. So the irony of all this licking them up and down, and “Aren’t we great?” and “the smartest kid on the room” is actually less powerful than the other way of being. Great leaders unlock that.
The second thing I think that real leaders do is, they understand that other people around them are waiting to be unlocked themselves. You play a role unlocking others. You’re not just doing this for the company. You’re doing it for all the people around you that you can help be better and stronger.
If you’re working from those two places, you’re running on a good gas tank.
Yep. I agree with that. That’s a very important thing, is doing that. I think about it all the time, when I want to be petty. When I’m angry, I sometimes … I think the strongest thing that you’ve said here, we’ve got to finish up, the do nothing thing. I thought about that the other day. I was going to do something and I was mad. I just was like, “I’m just not going to do anything.”
And what happened?
It worked out just fine. It’s not in my nature not to do anything.
It’s not in a lot of our natures.
I’m like a mom.
It doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.
“I’m going to clean up your room.” I think another thing was with my kid, too. Same thing. He made a mess and I was just was like, “I’m going to do nothing. I’m letting him clean it up,” and it worked 100 percent better. It was interesting. Other times, I do intervene. Most of the time. Because I do know better, Nancy. I don’t know if you know that. That’s my leadership style. Benevolent fascism is how I work at home. You can write your next book on it.
It’s a good title.
“A Case Study of Kara Swisher: Benevolent Fascism.”
Anyway, it was great talking to you. This is really important stuff. I think leadership is more important than ever, the right kind of leadership. We didn’t even get into #metoo or anything else, but that’s a whole ’nother …
Whole ’nother moment.
An important disruption.
Right now in Silicon Valley, all these leaders are praising China because they get things done and they work harder, and the niceties of sexual harassment investigations they don’t have to worry about. Of course, the New York Times had a great story about that today.
But it’s a whole ’nother topic. Maybe we’ll have you back to talk about those things.
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