Focus, Simplicity, Integrity: How History's Greatest Leaders Achieved Success
Digital disruptions have never been more intrusive, making concentration and focus more important than ever. Learning to say "no" to distractions has a good historical track record.
Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.
Her new book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times is an enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights that will be of interest to a wide range of readers—including those in government, business, education, and the arts—Forged in Crisis spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.
Koehn is the author of numerous books, articles, and Harvard Business School cases. She writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online. She is also a weekly commentator on National Public Radio and has appeared on many national television programs. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and in many other venues.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard. She lives outside Boston and is a dedicated equestrian.
NANCY KOEHN: One of the really interesting corollaries that’s part of many of these stories, the corollaries of focus—and these are the stories of Ernest Shackleton the explorer, the U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, the famous African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a very important resistor to Hitler in Nazi Germany Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the environmental activist Rachel Carson—is that each of them discover that focus is not only a way of bringing out their best possibilities, their greatest power as leaders, it’s also a way of conceding what isn’t important and giving away all of that stuff.
So let me give you a really interesting example.
In the early 1850s, Lincoln gives a law lecture to a bunch of aspiring lawyers. And he says, 'Look, I learned the hard way that if I could swing a jury to my side on the one or two or three critical issues that really matter to the case, I could simply give away everything else to my opponent. I could give away this point, then I could give away this point, then I could give away this point, and then I could give away this point, because I only needed to hold on to those one, two, or three issues. And by doing so I could (1) disarm the opposition, (2) keep the jury very focused on where they needed to be focused, and (3) claim all that I needed and nothing more for a judicial victory.”
And I think that is just a great lesson writ large for our moment.
We have so many leaders right now, and so many of us want at some emotional level to have all the victories, to get all the goodies, to be perfect on every front.
And each of these people learn that real power for leaders lies in giving away the unimportant stuff, in recognizing what’s a small or unimportant victory and joyfully handing it to someone else—including one’s opponent.
And that in the doing of that, not only does one hold on to what really matters, one masters oneself enough not to need to have victory on every single front all the time.
And there is great power and great self-knowledge in the doing of that that create on the outside a kind of confidence that people are very much attracted to and motivated by.
One of the things that each of these people learn—and I think is particularly relevant today—is the importance of focusing on one or two or even three—but it’s never more than three, it’s one or two, maybe three, never more—things at a time.
Why is it so important that leaders today, as in these stories, learn the emotional discipline, learn the fearsome, ineluctable logic of only focusing on a few things? It’s so important because first: there are a number of things every day that only a leader can do.
Every time we say "no" to those three critical things—one, two, or three—and say "yes" to the Twitter announcement that just dinged on our phone, say "yes" to the email notification that just came through—we have 12 unanswered emails in the last ten minutes—say "yes" to the person, the Doubting Thomas in our office who wants to tell you why things are wrong and can never be right—Every time we say "yes" to all those things we’re saying no to the things that only we as leaders in our respective paths can do.
And so we are saying "no" to moving the mission forward, even if it’s just a few inches in this moment! And that is really important right now when in so many ways Rome is burning around us.
And leaders of all kinds of walks of life, of all kinds of stripes and sizes have so many things coming at them that are not critical.
So the first reason is: a leader can only do certain things, and a leader owes it to himself or herself, his mission, his followers, the larger global village, to keep on focusing on those things. That’s the first reason.
The second reason it’s really critical is if we don’t work all by ourselves we have to be able to delegate to others.
The act of delegation is an act of empowerment. It’s an act of trust. It’s an act of sharing.
And I see so many leaders, myself included—I’m not sure I’m a leader, but I’m certainly a coach and a teacher and a writer—I see myself kind of trying to control everything all at once, from the state of my laundry to—which is a really useful procrastination device when you’re writing a book as long as I did—to “oh my god, I better reorder my inbox,” to, you know, “what about—what’s happening on Twitter right now?!”
I’m doing all those things, and I’m not finishing the things I need to finish in a leadership, coaching post I’m writing for people that are depending on me to get this out as a way of motivating them or guiding them or helping them.
I worry a great deal about not only leaders focusing on those one or two things—because only they can do them—but the fact that I have a small team of people around me who want to and are paid to take on these responsibilities.
And the more I try and control the more I effectively, often unconsciously, unintentionally take away their roles, their responsibilities, and their sense of investment in the larger mission.
So the second reason this is so critical is that other people are part of the story, part of the team, part of the mission.
They need to be a part of that, and they need to do the work they can do so that the leader can do what he or she must do.
In the focus, in the narrowing down of our attention to the three critical things, we are also giving ourselves permission to sink deeply into ourselves, to consider the importance of what we’re doing and the people affected by it, and to really reflect on how we can do that with nuance and integrity and wisdom and decency and a sense of being right for ourselves.
And those aspects are not possible when we are living, you know, in 17 time zones at once with 30 file folders, if you will, open on our mental desktop at all times. We’ve got to learn to identify the one or two or three things, and give the rest away and rediscover our own leadership power in the process of doing that.
"Real power for leaders lies in giving away the unimportant stuff." So says author and leadership researcher Nancy Koehn, who in looking at history's most accomplished individuals, has found that perfection and success don't necessarily go hand in hand. Leaders must focus their energies on just a few core goals, says Koehn. To make her point, she takes lessons from the lives of President Abraham Lincoln, environmentalist Rachel Carson, abolitionist Frederick Douglas, pastor and would-be Hitler assassin Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and explorer Ernest Shackleton. Nancy Koehn is the author of Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times .
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