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A Glimpse of Light: Lessons from Forged in Crisis by Nancy Koehn

What makes a great leader in a time of crisis? Historian Nancy Koehn from the Harvard School of Business offers some great insights on exceptional leadership.

I encountered Nancy Koehn’s book, Forged in Crisis, when I needed it most: April 2020, right after schools, businesses, and communities closed because of the pandemic. She writes about great leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shakleton, and Rachel Carson, who were clearly navigating even bigger challenges than me.

I was buoyed by her historian’s eye on these individuals’ struggles. It wasn’t ever easy. They made lots of wrong turns. They stay up nights working and worrying. They desperately needed (and took!) breaks to recharge. It felt so comforting to be in such good company.

Her conclusion: leaders are made, not born. That is, leadership is a skill that can be learned. Furthermore, her research suggests that long drawn out crises are a crucible in which real, courageous leaders are forged.

“Every leader will come face-to-face with his or her darkest doubts. In these moments, the way forward is to move directly into one’s fear—to do the thing, address the person, or seek out the information that seems so terrifying. When such a moment has passed… a leader realizes not only that he or she is still standing, but also that beneath (or beyond) the fear is a more resilient, more courageous self that is waiting to be claimed.”

Now, six months after opening this book, I am starting to see my own more resilient, more courageous self shine through. That brighter, lighter human really is under there waiting to be claimed by any who are willing to bravely walk through the darkness and do the work. Here are the lessons we can learn from Nancy Koehn.

Thoughtful decision making

Lesson #1: Before making a decision, courageous leaders rely on experts and reflect on the full landscape of the crisis. When they take action, they act with decisiveness but adopt a growth mindset that is willing to listen, learn, and pivot as the situation changes. Nancy Koehn points to John F. Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“After a great deal of discussion and intense debate in October 1962, Kennedy and his team of advisers adopted an innovative combination of several options: a naval quarantine of Cuba, public and private diplomacy, credible threat of military action, and, at the last moment, a back-channel deal with the Soviet Union to remove American missiles from Turkey. Part of what enabled Kennedy and his ad hoc brain trust to reach this novel solution was the latitude the president allowed for disagreement, reimagining, and then synthesizing what they knew and what they were learning.”

Step into fear

Lesson #2: Exceptional crisis leaders are brutally honest about the challenge ahead and acknowledge people’s fears, including their own. Yet, they temper their message with an action plan coupled with credible hope that resources are available to collectively meet the challenge.

Adversity is a great teacher. Exceptional crisis leaders adopt the mindset of resilience: I will find something good out of this storm and create a rainbow in its place.

“Your job, as a leader today, is to provide both brutal honesty — a clear accounting of the challenges your locality, company, non-profit, or team faces — and credible hope that collectively you and your people have the resources needed to meet the threats you face each day: determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose, humanity, kindness, and resilience. Recognize that most of your employees are anxious about their health, their finances, and, in many cases, their jobs. Explain that you understand how scary things feel, but that you can work together to weather this storm.” -- Nancy Koehn

Empower others

Lesson #3: Courageous leaders empower others with a role and purpose within the larger mission.

Emphasize to your followers that you expect everyone — individually and as a group — to learn their way forward, to experiment with new ways of operating, to expect the occasional failure and then quickly pivot to a new tack, to figure out the future together.” -- Nancy Koehn

Emotional intelligence

Lesson #4: Courageous leaders lead from humanity with great stores of emotional awareness and discipline. They care, feed, love, and mentor their people, starting with themselves.

“Crises take a toll on all of us. They are exhausting and can lead to burnout... Keep your finger on the pulse of your people’s energy and emotions and respond as needed. When tending to energy and emotion, you must begin with yourself.” -- Nancy Koehn


We are all, collectively, in the midst of a crisis: COVID-19. There is strong evidence that we are all experiencing a sustained form of trauma, anxiety, grief and fear as a result. Add to that all the stresses of life (e.g. parenting, relationships, weather, natural disasters, financial worries, workplace drama...) and it can seem overwhelming.

Many have pointed to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, for her empathetic approach to inspiring her country’s people to take action in ways large and small. The day before lockdown began, Prime Minister Ardern jumped onto Facebook Live from her home, dressed in a sweatshirt after putting her toddler to bed, to give everyone a job: Stay at home. Break the chain. Check in on your neighbors, especially the elderly. If you want to see my personal role model for modern day exceptional crisis leadership, watch that clip.

The lessons that I have taken from Nancy Koehn and applied to my life, and that all courageous humans in this world can take away include:

  • Step away and take a breath when emotions are high. I’m really focusing on building up my own mindfulness and meditation skills. I’m getting better and better each day at staying present rather than dwelling in the past or future.

  • We are all a touch overwhelmed right now. Thus, I will focus on no more than 2-3 big things I can do. I will simplify, rid my life of those things that drain energy, and either let go or give the rest away.

  • I’m adopting the mindset that I will find something good out of this storm and make my own rainbow.

  • I will be honest and vulnerable about the fears and challenges ahead, to myself and others.

  • I will adopt a growth mindset. I will listen to experts and explore different points of view. I will be willing to listen, learn, and pivot as the situation changes. It’s 2020 after all; the one thing we can count on is that the situation will definitely change!

  • When I find myself freaking out about all the situations I am powerless to change (like the PG&E power safety blackout my house was just in), I will pivot towards gratitude and be thankful instead for all the wonderful gifts I have. (Thank you dear husband for getting the generator up and running!)

  • I will empower others to participate in making the world a better place. Everyone needs a role to play. Everyone needs to feel connected. Everyone needs to be acknowledged for what they can contribute.

Read More

And if you want the teaser versions, check out one of these short free articles she wrote more recently:

Coming Up

I’m leading a workshop session on these ideas at two charter school conferences: CSDC’s 2020 Leadership Update Conference and CPICS’ 2020 Independent Charter School Symposium. There’s still time to register and join me there!

But even if you can’t, then I’d love to give you a personal one-on-one mini workshop. Sign up here on my calendar for a 20 minute spot:

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