Nancy Koehn on the Lessons of Lincoln

Nancy F. Koehn, an authority on entrepreneurial history, is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Koehn's research focuses on leading in turbulent times and the social and economic impact of entrepreneurship.

She is currently working on a book about the most important leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln and another on social entrepreneurs.  Her upcoming book, The Story of American Business:  From the Pages of the New York Times (2009), sketches some of the most important people and moments from the last 150 years of U.S. business history.  Koehn's most recent book, Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell (2001) examined six entrepreneurial visionaries who have created powerful brands and best-of-class companies in moments of great change.

Koehn consults with many companies on a range of issues including leadership development, effective brand stewardship, and customer relationship management.

  • Transcript


Question: What are you working on now?


Nancy Koehn: I’m working on a very small book about Abraham Lincoln, which is a bit like saying I’m hailing a taxi cab on Madison and 54th at 5:00 in New York because everyone is writing books about Lincoln. But I’m writing a little book about Lincoln and what he learned at critical moments along his journey, and why those lessons matter today.


Question: Why do the lessons of Lincoln matter today?


Nancy Koehn: I realized that some of the lessons her learned – lessons of detachment, and forbearance, and compassion, and patience – were lessons that are relevant both at an individual level to each of us today, and to many of us today, but also relevant on a social or even on a global level. And Lincoln learned interestingly enough – and in this sense the book is unusual, I think – through stumbling; through as he said once in the middle of the Civil War, “through falling to his knees” because he had no other place to go.

And so I’m reconstructing Lincoln’s stumbles and time on the kitchen floor, if you will; or time on the cabin floor, if you will, in order to try and understand how leaders – all of us as teachers, and parents, and citizens – can be made into better citizens, and parents, and teachers, and leaders rather than being born.

I think we suffer a little bit in our moment right now from, “Leaders are born. Where are they?” You know, “How did they get the Oracle at Delphi?” And we’re paying less attention to how we’re made step by step – two steps forward, one back – into better and more effective leaders.


Recorded on: June 12, 2007