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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,[…]

Koehn admires Nelson Mandela and Bono.

Question: Who are the great leaders?

Nancy Koehn: Well I admire, I think like millions of people, Nelson Mandela and all that he has done.  Not only what he has done in achieving an extraordinarily important new chapter for the republic of South Africa, but what he has done with the past.  I mean Mandela – like a number of leaders that we in America know less about in Africa and other parts of the world – has actively embraced in a savvy and strategic, and also in a humanitarian way a culture of forgiveness; a way of processing, acknowledging, taking responsibility for the past without it becoming the major tide along which the country will sail going into the future.  That’s an extremely difficult thing to do.  It’s an essential.  It’s an essential requisite for leaders at moments of inflection.  Lincoln had to think about it as the Civil War was finally winding down.  Roosevelt, and Churchill, and Stalin talked about it, but not in such humane terms at the end of World War II.  The President of Rwanda is dealing with it now still.  But how you do that – how you handle the past and yet not let it create collective bitterness, and discord, and cries for “give me mine now” because I lost it yesterday – that’s a very difficult thing to do.  And he’s just done an extraordinary job with it.  An extraordinary … he has handled it in an extraordinary way.  So Mandela I admire greatly.

I admire Bono of U2 who might not be on everyone’s list of sort of world leaders, but here’s a very interesting soul with a very interesting set of talents in an industry not known for its social, or political, or economic contributions on the public stage – rock ‘n’ roll.  Fabulous industry.  Most of us wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the same way without it, but it’s not usually a force in the way that he’s made it a force for specific change.  And there he is, you know?  Traveling to Africa with the Secretary of the Treasury to try and change third world debt repayment options, or African countries’ repayment options.  There he is in Washington, you know, having lunch with the Senate majority leader and then, you know, dinner with a Republican … with a member of the administration.  I think he’s a very interesting, and I think increasingly effective, world leader.

Recorded On: 6/12/07