her new book, "Forged in Crisis," Harvard
Business School professor and historian Nancy Koehn
shows us how five ordinary people became unforgettable
spent 10 years poring over archives to research the
lives of President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist
Frederick Douglass, anti-Nazi clergyman Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, environmentalist Rachel Carson and polar
explorer Ernest Shackleton. She offers a glimpse at
effective agents of worthy change, leaders who saw the
"intersection of human agency and larger historical
forces" and incited others to right action.
Chicago Tribune talked to Koehn, a native Chicagoan, by
book is a call for all the goodness in people to keep on
keepin’ on," she said. "Find your muscles of
moral courage, whatever the cause of goodness that you’re
involved in, that calls to you, do it because the world
needs you really badly right now."
following is a transcript of the conversation, edited
for clarity and space.
Who’s the audience for this book?
I’ve always aimed, in my heart, for the curious reader
from any walk of life who wants to use inspiring,
serious stories of how ordinary people make themselves
capable of doing extraordinary things to help them lead,
live and work. I want nurses, firemen and teenagers to
get inspired by this book as well as silverback gorillas
at all kinds of levels of power in business and society
in the government and nonprofits. I would like it to be
read by some in Congress, so they find some courage.
How did you choose the five iconic people to put in the
I wanted a diverse group. I wanted people who had not
had a kind of … uninterrupted highway to the stars. As
I got to know these stories, I just thought the whole
was greater than the sum of the parts.
Is it a good time to be a historian now?
Yes, it’s interesting to be a historian, but it’s
also deeply frightening. …You go back to history to
ask, what can we draw from the courage of former
generations of Americans that fought for a nation
founded on the proposition that all men are created
equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights,
including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
There is nothing more fundamental and important than
that. There aren’t nearly enough people speaking out
about the affronts to our republic and to the soul of
Empathy and compassion are words used often with these
leaders. How does one connect with their humanity during
One of the things that all five of these people teach us
is to cultivate empathy for people who are oppressed,
those who have less than you, those who are suffering.
All of these people never lost their access to people
who had less than they did, and I think that’s so
important right now. How do we cultivate an
understanding for, an awareness of, those around us who
are suffering even more or much more than we are, when
suffering takes many forms? Would that our leaders were
operating with at least some attention to the view from
below — because that will really develop your
compassion muscles, really develop a kind of imagination
about what we need to do to help all kinds of people.
Compassion makes us better and bolder. It actually makes
us better leaders. These stories prove that; that’s
what’s so powerful about them.