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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,[…]

Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn discusses the value of reconstructing Lincoln’s stumbles.

Question: What are you working on now?


Nancy Koehn: I’m working on a very small book about Abraham Lincoln, which is a bit like saying I’m hailing a taxi cab on Madison and 54th at 5:00 in New York because everyone is writing books about Lincoln. But I’m writing a little book about Lincoln and what he learned at critical moments along his journey, and why those lessons matter today.


Question: Why do the lessons of Lincoln matter today?


Nancy Koehn: I realized that some of the lessons her learned – lessons of detachment, and forbearance, and compassion, and patience – were lessons that are relevant both at an individual level to each of us today, and to many of us today, but also relevant on a social or even on a global level. And Lincoln learned interestingly enough – and in this sense the book is unusual, I think – through stumbling; through as he said once in the middle of the Civil War, “through falling to his knees” because he had no other place to go.

And so I’m reconstructing Lincoln’s stumbles and time on the kitchen floor, if you will; or time on the cabin floor, if you will, in order to try and understand how leaders – all of us as teachers, and parents, and citizens – can be made into better citizens, and parents, and teachers, and leaders rather than being born.

I think we suffer a little bit in our moment right now from, “Leaders are born. Where are they?” You know, “How did they get the Oracle at Delphi?” And we’re paying less attention to how we’re made step by step – two steps forward, one back – into better and more effective leaders.


Recorded on: June 12, 2007