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 the measure of a good life?
Nancy Koehn: I think the measure of a good life is to die well. It’s to get to the end of the journey … and not all of us will know when we’re at the end of the journey, because many of us will die abruptly; but many of us will. And all of us will age. And all of us will walk closer every single day to physical death. But there’s a wonderful line from Saint Paul – I think it’s in Romans 8 – about like lambs, we are killed every day. And then later in the Scriptures, we know death. And because of that we know more and more of life. So we’re always walking closer to death. And it’s in that knowledge, and it’s in that walking that enables us to look around, and forward, and backward and think, “What am I doing? How am I walking? With whom am I talking as I walk? Where am I stopping? Am I going to get to the end of the journey and be glad that I walk the way I did? Not exuberant. Not screaming with ecstasy, but sound, and satisfied, and solid about what I did, the mistakes I made, the accomplishments that I found and achieved, and the actual way that I put one foot in front of the other.” I think the measure of a good life is a lot about the acknowledgement of our physical forms coming to an end and our willingness to at least take a look at that occasionally.
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...