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: What is fear?
Nancy Koehn: I think it was Margaret Meade who once said that all that is necessary to change the world is for a small group of people to get together and start talking about it and acting. In fact nothing … Indeed nothing else has ever changed the world. We need to light more fires around those dry timbers, and to lay the kindling more carefully and much more frequently. So that’s the first thing I think the world needs, and we have to slow down to do that. I think the second thing the world needs is to breathe. It’s to breathe and to stop being quite so scared of all that’s coming at us. That’s a very, very tall order. But when you travel around the world and you … and you travel across time as I do – I’m a time traveler as much as a geographical traveler – you see that fear has a very big and often debilitating role between people, among nations, across ideas. Fear is a very paralyzing … mostly a paralyzing emotion. It has great benefits. And planned fear, as we say in the horseback riding world … Collect your horse before you jump, right? Because you pull the reigns and you collect him so that he can make the right stride and then cleanly flow over the jump. That’s a different … that’s a different kind of emotion, and a different kind of enterprise on a collective level than all the reactive anxiety that we see today not only among the people we know and within ourselves, but among nations. All of that edginess, we’re gonna have to … Again, I look to leaders to help us do this. Because right now we don’t really have an international forum or forums that have yet risen to assume that kind of role – a role of allaying fear. I think certain kinds of entertainment vehicles might even become that, but we’re not there … we’re not that close yet. So we need forums for allaying fear.
Recorded On: 6/12/07
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...