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: Who are you?
Nancy Koehn: Nancy Koehn. And I am the James Robison Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. I was born in Chicago. I lived in Illinois, and in Maine, and in Texas as a child. I went to school in California; came to Boston 25 years ago for two years and never left. I think of myself as a traveler. That was how I intended to answer the first question, “Who are you?" And I had not connected it to a childhood that included a lot of stops along the journey; but I think living in so many different parts of the country and seeing so many different ways of life probably did affect my interest in traveling through the past and into the present. I'm very comfortable with traveling without a set destination, and that may have something to do with being a child that, you know, changed schools so many times. Until I reached sixth grade, I think I was in a different school every year. So maybe that proclivity to travel metaphorically is part of who I am as a professional and as a human traveler and as a traveler on a life journey.
I don't think there was a pivotal moment in my childhood. If I was asked to think about a critical point or juncture, it would be in my adult life. And whether that moment or those moments, you know, hearkened back or had a taproot into older points along my childhood journey may indeed be so; but I'm less conscious of them. And a piece of that is an increasing impatience with living in the past, which I think even as a historian being paid to do that in many ways, I have spent as a human traveler too much time doing. So I . . . Perhaps my mental operating system is my desktop, if you will it just has more file folders that are closer in time to this moment than it does moments in my childhood. My father was a very important influence in my life. I thought for most of my adult life thus far that he was much more important than my mother. But I think now in my middle age and I feel like I'm aging as I speak like my mother is very important also. My father as a role model professionally, he was a philosopher. And he was a very athletic man, and that was incredibly important to me growing up and still is. He was a driven man, and I think for good and less good, I took some of my drive and my natural operating system from him and his intensity. From my mother I actually gained more subtle gifts like an eye for the large landscape … for the large landscape of the times; the large landscape of a moment or a situation; for the large landscape of our lives. She's a … She has a wide angle lens on her, and it took me a long time to realize how much of that I've benefited from. There was one teacher in particular as well that I think really affected who I am today. And her name was Mrs. Powers, and she was my teacher in sixth grade. And she taught me to write. She taught me not necessarily how to put subject-verb-object together in smooth form; but rather to express myself in writing, and to enjoy that, and to not be afraid of it. And that was an extraordinary gift, one that I carry with me and use every day. I thought I would be a child psychologist. I thought I would help parents and kids understand why young people do what they do. And if they had troubles or wounds, I thought I would help them with those troubles and help them heal those wounds. And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to study children's behavior, and I wanted to help people use it for good.
Because ironically my father really talked me out of majoring in psychology when I was a sophomore at Stanford. And he was a formidable person in my life, and I followed his guideposts, his signposts, I think probably with some real discord inside me; but nevertheless I followed them.
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...