Edited by Julia Hanna; illustrations by Eduardo Recife
Professor Nancy Koehn uses the perspective of time to tell the stories of ordinary people who, despite the odds, achieved extraordinary things. As these moments from her new book, Forged in Crisis, show, their lessons have relevance for our own turbulent times.
Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill
Today’s entrepreneurs would find the tasks involved in organizing and leading an Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century somewhat familiar. Koehn notes that the Irish-born explorer Ernest Shackleton used savvy marketing skills to attract funders for his ships, lifeboats, supplies, and food. He also recognized the importance of assembling a team that could work together and embrace high levels of risk and uncertainty—qualities that proved particularly relevant for the ill-fated voyage of the Endurance, trapped in pack ice in January 1915.
Legend has it that to attract potential crew members, Shackleton placed the following newspaper advertisement: “Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” This certainly makes for compelling reading in our time, and it is conceivable that Shackleton placed the notice. He was searching for men with a specific outlook and orientation, and this ad would have appealed to such individuals. ...According to his friend Hugh Robert Mill, hundreds of men applied to join the venture; another source put the number of candidates at five thousand.
Bridges Adams, an acquaintance who directed an acting company, remembered a conversation in which Shackleton explained his views on hiring. The leader, Adams recalled, “was fascinated when I described the formation of a repertory company, and how character and temperament mattered quite as much as acting ability; just his problem, he said—he had to balance his types too, and their science or seamanship weighed little against the kind of chaps they were.” As he read the candidates’ letters, Shackleton divided them into three categories: “Mad,” “Hopeless,” and “Possible.” He met face-to-face with those in the Possible category, searching for cheerfulness, a sense of humor, and other qualities he associated with optimism, a personal trait he deemed essential for men on a daring, dangerous mission. One applicant recalled that his interview with Shackleton was less than ten minutes long. During this time, the commander “asked me if my teeth were good, if I suffered from varicose veins, if I had a good temper, and if I could sing. At this question I probably looked a bit taken aback, for I remember he said, ‘O, I don’t mean any [opera singer Enrico] Caruso stuff; but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?’ He then asked me if my circulation was good. I said it was except for one finger, which frequently went dead in cold weather. He asked me if I would seriously mind losing it. I said I would risk that....After this he put out his hand and said, ‘Very well, I’ll take you.’”
When Shackleton reviewed the qualifications of applicants who had previously been to the Antarctic, he looked for perseverance and stamina. For example, he hired Tom Crean, a sinewy Irishman who had saved the lives of two men on a past polar expedition by traveling thirty miles without stopping to eat or sleep....
Here is a key insight for modern leaders: hire for attitude, train for skill. Shackleton understood that the more volatile and uncertain the environment, the more important it is to have individuals who can and want to embrace the disruption, who understand how to thrive in ambiguity and respond quickly to its unforeseen challenges. These aspects, the leader realized, depend more heavily on an individual’s temperament and outlook than they do on professional rank, technical expertise, or specific job history. Like Shackleton, today’s leaders need team members and other stakeholders who can acknowledge turbulence, embrace its opportunities, and meet its challenges with confidence and effect.
When Doing Nothing Is the Best Action
As the Civil War wore on into 1864, the North continued to suffer crushing numbers of casualties. Pressure grew on the Union side to end the conflict, even if it meant foregoing universal emancipation. Facing the prospect of an upcoming presidential election against a popular Democratic candidate, George B. McClellan, President Lincoln—already besieged by personal and political difficulties—weighed his options, knowing that a loss at the polls would almost certainly mean a permanently divided nation.
By late August, Lincoln faced a crisis as great as any other he had confronted. Northern political support had turned strongly against him. The chief executive understood what this meant. “You think I don’t know I am going to be beaten,” he remarked to a visitor in late summer, “but I do, and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.” If McClellan was elected, Lincoln realized, the likelihood was strong that the war would end with the South becoming an independent nation—one that would keep slavery intact.
The president was racked with worry. He knew he could not relinquish universal emancipation as a condition of ending the war. He could not send black soldiers who had fought for the Union back to their masters. ...
But as the military stalemate continued, the pressure on the president to seek settlement terms with the Confederacy increased. ...And the commander in chief began to waver. Perhaps, he told himself as he paced the White House hallway late at night, he should enter into peace talks with Southern leaders. On August 19, he drafted a potentially momentous letter to a Democratic politician and newspaper editor, ending the communication with this proposition: “If Jefferson Davis wishes...to know what I would do if he were to offer peace and re-union, saying nothing about slavery, let him try me.”
Having written these words, Lincoln paused. He did not send the letter; instead, he stored it in his desk while he thought about what to do. Two days later, when Frederick Douglass visited Lincoln at the White House to discuss recruiting slaves into the Union army, the president read the letter aloud to him. The black activist strongly urged the chief executive to keep it to himself. If he sent it, Douglass said, the missive would be interpreted “as a complete surrender of your anti-slavery policy, and do you serious damage.”
Lincoln took the advice. He returned the letter to his files. With renewed confidence, the president decided emancipation would remain an essential condition of any negotiations with the Confederacy. For a few days during the long, hot summer of 1864, Lincoln had considered backing away from his mission. But in the end—at the moment it really mattered—he did not. He held the line. First, he moved slowly enough not to send a letter that might have initiated peace talks with rebel leaders. Second, he sought input from individuals such as Frederick Douglass, who Lincoln surely knew would advise against sending the communication. Third, he stayed the course by accessing his commitment to the larger purpose.
Historians and biographers have pointed to a number of Lincoln’s strengths and their role in his leadership. But one of the most significant of these strengths is not often mentioned, and this is that Lincoln simply kept going. Once he made a crucial decision, he saw it through, even when virtually everything around him seemed stacked against such a commitment. This adherence was not the result of stubbornness or self-righteousness. Rather, it came from the care that Lincoln exercised in making choices, including the slowness with which he acted when the stakes were high; from his growing depth as a moral actor; and from his sheer will to get up each morning and do what he could in service to his mission.
In early September, Union forces scored a critical military victory. After six weeks of laying siege to Atlanta, Sherman’s troops succeeded in cutting all major supply lines to the city, and on September 1, Confederate forces under the command of General John Bell Hood evacuated the area. The next day, Sherman’s army marched in, raising the American flag over city hall. The Union general cabled Washington, “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”
The balance of the war had shifted again and with it, Lincoln’s possibilities for a second term.
The Power of Quiet
Born in 1907, Rachel Carson grew up in Springdale, Pennsylvania, on a 65-acre farm. “I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature,” she once said. Years later, Carson—a quiet, reserved woman who trained as a scientist—would find her voice as a writer, publishing essays and books about nature’s delicate interrelationship with humankind. For two years, she battled a range of debilitating health struggles to complete the manuscript of Silent Spring, which documents the effects of pesticides such as DDT on the environment and the campaign of misinformation surrounding their use. “Leaders are obligated...to translate information into knowledge, to use this knowledge to develop understanding, and, if possible, to turn that understanding into wisdom,” writes Koehn. Doing one’s homework, she adds, is also important—especially when something you write draws the ire of a powerful industry. Before Silent Spring appeared as a book in the fall of 1962, criticism and threats of legal action rained down on Carson and the New Yorker magazine, which had published the work in its entirety over three issues.
During the summer of 1962, Carson’s critics initiated a series of counterattacks, with the chemical industry leading the charge. The president of Montrose Chemical, the leading producer of DDT, said that Carson wrote “not as a scientist, but as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Invoking Cold War language, Louis McLean, general counsel for Velsicol Chemical Company, suggested that the bestselling author was a front for Communist influences that aimed at restricting “the use of agricultural chemicals in this country...so that our supply of food will be reduced to [Iron Curtain] parity.”
Readers and reporters jumped into the fray. Some journalists lined up with the chemical industry. A writer in the Economist, for example, termed Silent Spring “a shrill tract,” composed of “propaganda written in white-hot anger with words tumbling and stumbling all over the page.”
...Several chemical companies threatened legal action. Velsicol Chemical Company, maker of chlordane and heptachlor, tried to prevent the New Yorker from publishing the third excerpt of Silent Spring, promising a lawsuit if the magazine went ahead. Milton Greenstein, the New Yorker’s legal counsel, told his counterpart at Velsicol, “Everything in those articles has been checked, and it is true. Go ahead and sue.” The manufacturer also threatened Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin. After an exchange of letters in which the publisher defended Carson’s source material and its decision to issue the book, Velsicol backed away from its warnings. No lawsuits against Silent Spring were filed before or after its publication.
Upon the book’s publication in September 1962, Silent Spring almost immediately became a bestseller, with total sales exceeding 1 million copies by mid-1964. Often credited with kick-starting a range of governmental actions in the United States and abroad, including the Clean Water Act and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, it remains an ongoing source of inspiration for environmental leaders worldwide.
The fiftieth anniversary of Silent Spring in 2012 saw another outpouring of interest in Carson’s work, including debate about the widespread prohibition of DDT use around the world. That the book has continued to stimulate engagement—at popular, scientific, and governmental levels—is testament to the depth and relevance of the issues that its author raised and how she wrote about them. The enduring importance of Silent Spring also speaks to the tremendous positive impact that one person, working in service to a worthy mission, can have. This, alongside the contributions that Rachel Carson made to the field of conservation biology, is her legacy.
Unlike the other leaders in this book, Carson led quietly. She worked mostly in private, exercising resilience, forbearance, and commitment to the cause that had called her. She did some of this work in her study, and some walking along the Maine shoreline with her grandnephew Roger, watching the seabirds overhead and examining the creatures that lived in the tide pools. She also did some of it reaching out to good friends as she tried to navigate the moments of doubt and despair that at times threatened to overwhelm her. In all these contexts, Rachel Carson demonstrated the importance of steady, diligent work and the determination that powers this. She was a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities we often associate with leadership, such as charisma and aggressiveness. But as people such as Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, have pointed out, leadership comes in different forms.
In her time, Carson was a pathbreaker. She worked as a scientist during an era when men dominated the field. For the last ten years of her life, she worked without an institutional affiliation. She consciously decided to speak out on a large issue that challenged formidable vested interests. She did all this in a reserved, soft- spoken manner even as her opponents launched a noisy nationwide campaign to try to discredit her and her research. Today, millions of people recognize Carson’s courage, dignity, and lasting influence.
The year after Silent Spring was published, Carson gave a speech to the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Permanente Medical Group in San Francisco. It was the first time she publicly identified herself as an ecologist, and she used the occasion to highlight the connections among species, the larger environment, and the dynamic systems that govern the planet. She also pointed to the perils of man’s unconditional embrace of technological innovation: “I suppose it is a rather new, and almost a humbling thought, and certainly one born of this atomic age, that man could be working against himself.” “In spite of our rather boastful talk,” she continued, “about progress, and our pride in the gadgets of civilization, there is, I think, a growing suspicion—indeed, perhaps an uneasy certainty—that we have been sometimes a little too ingenious for our own good.” In words that anticipated aspects of today’s debate on global warming, she remarked, “We are beginning to wonder whether our power to change the face of nature should not have been tempered with wisdom for our own good, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the welfare of generations to come.”
This was the last speech that Carson gave. Here, as in her larger leadership journey, she did more than simply identify critical problems and potential solutions. She also called others to their stronger selves, pointing them to a path of citizen awareness and action paved with humility and wisdom. She did all this with care, courage, dedication, and grace. Her life and work are indisputable proof of the enormous positive difference that one person can make.
Copyright 2017 by Nancy Koehn. From FORGED IN CRISIS: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by Nancy Koehn, to be published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Back to the Future
Looking to leaders, then and now
Why should we look to the past and not the present for leadership lessons?
Photo by Steven Richard
Nancy Koehn: When we’re looking at the past, we’re more able to see both large forces at work and the impact of individual human action and endeavor. When we look back at a time not our own, our line of sight is clearer and more incisive. Add in the fact that our current moment is exceptionally turbulent; from global politics to social movements to the world’s weather patterns, we are living in the midst of great volatility. How do we see clearly, not only here and now, but also into an uncertain future? In this context, the past—carefully reconstructed and communicated—is very, very useful. We can understand critical aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, or Rachel Carson putting the pieces together about pesticides like DDT, to learn about our own moment and to try to make sense of what specific individuals did to make a big, worthy difference. This is really important, particularly given the cynicism that is now swirling around so much of what leaders are saying and doing in different spheres.
Who are the current leaders that future generations will be inspired by?
NK: We’ll be better able to answer this question in the coming five years because crises always call forth new leaders. And these individuals will come onto the larger stage in the coming years. Consider, for example, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton (MBA/MPA 2011), a veteran, who is part of the new generation of leaders beginning to exert impact on our national government. The next two elections—in 2018 and 2020—will see other young men and women enter the political arena. I’m a longtime student of Howard Schultz and what he’s done at Starbucks. His leadership and how it is expanding the social and political footprint of business are very interesting. Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund is literally doing the Lord’s work of nurturing the next generation. Think as well about an individual like Congressman John Lewis, a leader who began his work for social justice as part of the civil rights movement, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Lewis is a servant-leader with an unflagging commitment to an honorable cause. I think younger people in his mold—people now in their 20s and 30s—are starting to come forward and claim the mantle of leadership in all kinds of exciting ways.