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.
Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?
Nancy Koehn: I think I have been looking for a personal philosophy and a set of principles or precepts for a long, long time. I studied philosophy as a minor in college. I was in a great books program. My father was a philosopher. I am fascinated by religion and literature. And I think all of that … And have tried haltingly and fumblingly to understand the large metaphysical implications at a very general level of some of the most important achievements of, you know, of quantum physics and mathematics in the 20th century which have had such great important on how we think of our place in the cosmos. I think I’ve been looking for a long time for that system, or that set of beliefs. And I’ve realized in the last four or five years that it’s not there for me, that I can stop looking. And that really, my … What holds together my own outlook on the world and what I believe is much more like a chalk drawing on a London sidewalk than it is like one of those indecipherable equations on an MIT blackboard; and that I fundamentally believe … I think Einstein ironically said, “One of the most important choices that a person makes” – perhaps one of the most important – “is whether you believe the universe is fundamentally good or bad” – good or evil. And I believe very strongly in the goodness of the universe without in any way downplaying or ignoring the presence of evil. But the way I see that goodness is in pastels, and soft hues, and unexpected colors and parts of the drawing rather than with the clarity or neatness of much of more organized ways of thinking about the world and man’s place in it. I think my most important . . . my most important value is integrity to act, and to comport myself, and to be with others and with myself in a way that has a cohesion and adherence to all of who I am. And by that I mean all of my . . . all of the best parts of who I am. And so I think acting and living with integrity is the most important value of mine. And I think it’s the value from which the rest of my better self flows.
Recorded on June 12, 2007
Lincoln's emotional awareness, that kind of explicit, reflective, conversation with himself is how he used all the adverse classrooms, from his mother’s death when he was nine to all those lost elections, to...