A lesson in power, significance, and influence from Abraham Lincoln
It wasn't until after President Lincoln's death that we would discover one of his most important lessons, hidden in his desk drawer.
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 most interesting and powerful lessons that I discovered in writing this book was that each of these five people — that’s Ernest Shackleton the Antarctic explorer; our sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln; the abolitionist and civil liberties crusader Frederick Douglass; the resistor to Nazi Germany’s evils Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor; and the environmental activist Rachel Carson, discover that sometimes doing nothing is the most powerful, the most significant, the most influential thing a leader can do.
And they discover that mostly by making mistakes, by acting quickly, decisively, rashly in a high stakes moment when they are highly charged, when they are emotionally very hot in terms of their temperature, and when people around them are emotionally very hot in terms of their emotional temperatures. They discover the power of waiting, of doing nothing when the stakes are high and emotional temperatures are high. And they discover this lesson because they make the mistake of acting, of writing, of speaking out, of making a decision when they are very, very hot under the collar, right? When their hair on the back of their neck is really on end. And they realize, “This is not my best mode. This is not my strongest self. I can actually do a lot of damage to my mission, my followers, what I’m trying to accomplish if I make choices when I don’t see myself as clearly, when I’m not as temperate and careful and thoughtful and reflective and emotionally aware as I might be.”
And so one of the best examples of this is an example that occurred right after the Battle of Gettysburg. And I tell it in the conclusion to the book. Abraham Lincoln has just learned that the Union Army, commanded by a general named George Meade, has won a decisive battle in three days of bloody fighting in southern Pennsylvania in Gettysburg against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee immediately, after the third day and the defeat, retreats south for Virginia. And George Meade makes a critical decision at that moment not to pursue Lee’s army even though Lee’s army is weakened, suffering from great casualties and emotionally demoralized. But George Meade makes a decision, he thinks it’s very well-founded: his troops were too tired. He can’t risk really taking any more losses than his big army, the Army of the Potomac, has already taken. Losses on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg were enormous. Lincoln learns of this a day and a half later by telegraph in the White House and he is so frustrated, so angry, so beside himself—he’s pacing the halls of the second floor of the White House in anger and frustration, and he writes a four-page letter to George Meade expressing his dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction then gives way to anger, the anger gives way to red-hot frustration on the pages as Lincoln’s pen gathers speed and his emotional temper gathers speed. And he writes this letter, “You know, you have no idea how disappointed I am. You could have pursued Lee, crushed that army and ended the war, and now countless deaths are still to come and the end of the war is nowhere in sight. I cannot express adequately my disappointment in this situation.” He writes this letter. He folds it up. He puts it in an envelope, and it’s found after he died. “To George Meade,” says the signature on the front. Written but never signed or sent, July 1863.
And when I teach this letter to my executives, when I do leadership coaching or when I present it to my students I say: Imagine if Lincoln had had email, because what Lincoln did in that moment — I can see him doing it; I've spent a lot of time with Mr. Lincoln over the years — I can see him sitting back or maybe getting up from his writing desk and taking a long perambulating walk around his big office and saying, “Wait a minute. I don’t really have very many generals that I can call fighting generals in reserve. If I make George Meade angry and he peels off the Union war effort I’ve already gone through a lot of generals that have disappointed me, and lots of them aren’t my friends.” So I think he made a very calculated decision, that as frustrated as he was and as disappointed as he was, he was going to sabotage or do some damage to his mission, to save the Union and end slavery, if he alienated George Meade who would ultimately talk about it and alienate other generals for Lincoln.
And so he never sent that letter, and I always say to executives: imagine Lincoln had just hit send in the heat of the moment if he had email. Or sent a Twitter message off excoriating Meade. The course of world history, certainly of U.S. history, might indeed have been different. So Lincoln gained a great deal by not sending that letter. The Union was preserved. Great fighting generals came out of the West by early 1864, Sherman and Grant, to fight the war that Lincoln knew that needed to be prosecuted. And the story turned out, in the end, a triumph for Lincoln’s mission. But he had to exercise the discipline. He had to realize that doing nothing was the best thing he could do. And we have to learn that lesson today. We live in an age when world leaders are expressing vitriol and hatred and their immediate reactive white-hot emotions in all kinds of media channels because they’re not waiting, they’re not processing, they’re not taking a yoga breath and they’re not considering that those emotional expulsions are doing more damage to the world and their followers and a noble cause than simply remaining quiet and doing nothing in the heat of the moment.
Want to be one of the greatest leaders of all time, with a wealth of success, power and respect? Try doing nothing for a change, says Harvard historian Nancy Koehn. This counterintuitive advice applies to moments of crisis, when the stakes are high and emotions are tense, because that is the very time when you're apt to make errors in your decision-making. Anger brings weakness, but you can conquer the trap of emotion by removing yourself from the situation, and sitting in silence to think. To prove that doing nothing in times of severe anger is a leadership skill worth developing, Koehn tells the story of the most important letter Abraham Lincoln never sent—if he had had email or twitter (i.e. quick reactions) back in 1863, the outcome of the Civil War and U.S. history may have been drastically different. It turns out you can win almost any fight if you learn how to respond thoughtfully in time, instead of reacting rashly in an instant. Nancy Koehn is the author of Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times .
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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