October 2021. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Nancy Koehn, the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, on leadership lessons from the life of Congressman John Lewis, the six qualities of great leaders, and the enduring importance of history. | Click here for more interviews like this one.
GrowthPolicy: I’d like you to talk about your exciting new project. You are working on a Harvard Business School (HBS) case study on Rep. John Lewis. How do exemplars and models of leadership from the original Civil Rights movement compare to the ones we have today?
Nancy Koehn: John Lewis is very much with me right now, because for the last eight months or so I have been researching and writing an HBS case on this resilient, determined leader. I met Mr. Lewis in person several years ago when I interviewed him as part of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award ceremony at the Harvard Kennedy School, and he was the recipient. I was deeply impressed then with his words to the Harvard community assembled in the Forum that evening, his track record of public service as a civil rights leader, an activist, and congressman, and his presence. John Lewis had both a quiet confidence and a big, unmistakable mission, which everyone who met him was called to reckon with: do not stop working for justice and the creation of the Beloved Community in which everyone is cared for without poverty, hunger, and hatred.
These impressions came rushing back to me last July  when both Lewis and C. T. Vivian, two vital leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, died on the same day. This was about seven weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and the nation—and soon many other countries—were in the midst of intertwined crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, collective outrage at racial hatred, and the systemic violence and inequities that flowed from this hatred.
At the time, I could not see how, what I am now calling, the campaign for justice and equality would emerge, but I was certain that something very dynamic and important was happening. So, I went looking for perspective and guidance in the form of John Lewis’s leadership journey. As I began researching his life and work, I also began immersing myself in the history of the broader Civil Rights Movement and, particularly, in the mostly young, Black men and women who moved it forward so powerfully between about 1955 and 1968.
I am a very stubborn, diligent researcher, and I have much more to learn about Lewis, his colleagues in the movement, and the larger stage more generally. But with what I know now, I am certain there is a great deal we can learn today about effective leadership—across contexts—from the men and women who moved the boulder of Goodness forward during the struggle for civil rights sixty years ago.
One thing we can learn in our just-in-time, gotta-have-it-now moment is that the struggle for any mission worth investing in, worth committing oneself to, is never swiftly and decisively concluded. Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, James Lawson, Mrs. Hamer, and others always understood that the work goes on, the struggle does not end, even in the wake of a big victory, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today’s success, which is often followed by a backlash or retreat, is the runway to the next campaign, the next stretch of road we must travel to make our country and the world more just and equal.
“We must accept one central truth,” Lewis wrote, “as participants in a democracy. Freedom is not a state, it is an act.” And as such we have to keep it alive, keep doing the work needed, keep getting in “good trouble.” It is in such engagement that we forge both our best selves and our best communities. This is a vital lesson we must learn today as we face multiple crises, including formidable domestic threats to our democracy, the urgency of massive climate change, and emboldened forces of discrimination and hatred.
From Lewis and other Black civil-rights leaders we can also learn that leading courageously is not a one-man or one-woman band. It’s not primarily the result of THE heroic leader. Instead, progress marches forward because a community of people come together to do something hard and good. Of the many men and women that led the civil rights movement, most of us know more about Dr. King than about any other person. But as conscious and judicious as King was of his own influence, he understood that what he helped accomplish was critically dependent on the work of his fellow brothers and sisters in arms—from Lewis to Medgar Evers to Ella Baker to Bob Moses to A. Philip Randolph—who served the movement in different organizations, various capacities, and distinct moments.
This is a very important insight in our narcissistic, fame-obsessed time. It takes the commitment and authentic collaboration of a range of people, working in real fellowship, to get something big and worthy done. Some of this is because tackling a huge issue demands different resources and approaches just to get the darn ball of change rolling.
Some of this is because you need real, viable inter-organizational alliances to affect transformation on a large scale. A third reason is that learning forward is easier, faster, and more effective when you have more than one person and his or her immediate circle doing this. And a last reason is that the more difficult the mission, the more backlash that change leaders and their followers will encounter. Building resilience to this backlash, keeping our courage muscles strong, and supporting each other and newcomers in the struggle are all imperative; this can only happen when the leaders are organized and recognized as a community of activists engaged in a mighty, collective endeavor.
A third lesson we can absorb from Lewis and his colleagues is that of strategic discipline. He and other civil rights leaders understood they had to be very disciplined, very consistent in how they conducted their campaigns. The civil rights leaders whom I am studying realized they could not build a more equal and just society in which people were respected for their unalterable humanity, regardless of color, background, religion, or other aspect, if the struggle for this mission was achieved through violence and division. For these men and women, this meant a deep commitment to the strategy of nonviolence, even in the face of the brutal—at times, deadly—resistance they met. The care and consistency and courage with which they executed their nonviolent campaigns were remarkable.
Remember “Bloody Sunday” when Lewis and other activists were clubbed, beaten, and whipped by Alabama law enforcement officials at the Edmund Pettis Bridge? Millions of horrified Americans, including President Lyndon Johnson, watched this state-supported violence unfold on their television screens, but they also observed that the marchers did not retaliate in kind. As a result, the moral essence of the struggle could not have been clearer to virtually everyone who bore witness to the march. This clarity was part and parcel of the discipline that civil rights leaders practiced. In almost every campaign launched between 1960 and 1965, activists—of all ages—received training in non-violence (even the school children who marched in the streets of Birmingham in the spring 1963 had rehearsed what to do if the police set dogs upon them).
We can also learn from their strategic discipline in how they framed the mission. Under the leadership of people such as Lewis and Diane Nash, the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle to redeem the soul of America, to make the country more just, peaceful, prosperous, and loving for all its citizens. The leaders remained committed to this framing throughout the decade beginning in 1955, even in face of enormous resistance, collective cynicism, alternative leadership models, and the multiplying barriers placed in their path by fearful, angry White supremacists, and by many White national government leaders. It is both deeply tragic and ironic that this framing was beginning to emerge as a viable, mainstream political objective in 1968, just as Martin Luther King was murdered, followed quickly by the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Civil rights leaders were so careful about how they framed the struggle because they understood that such framing has great determining power over the latitude and shape of future outcomes. To see this today, consider the climate change crisis. Are we chiefly concerned with building dykes and other mitigation measures or with seriously reducing carbon emissions? The choice in framing critically affects what happens going forward; it is perhaps not too strong that in such choosing we make our future. Or take the COVID-19 pandemic. Have we (consciously or unconsciously) framed the work ahead as accepting the virus as endemic or do we want to be largely free of this virus? Each choice leads to very different actions now and thus distinct futures.
GrowthPolicy: I loved your last book on leadership, Forged in Crisis. One of the larger points you make in that book is that we live in a cultural moment in which our collective faith in national leaders, whether in politics, business, or elsewhere, is waning. What should readers take away from your book in terms of enduring models of leadership that are worth emulating?
Nancy Koehn: As a historian, I don’t rely on models. All of my research is inductive. I start from many particulars and then piece together the evidence and clues to form a larger, coherent story that I then work very hard to corroborate, revise, and then confirm based on the historical record.
Forged in Crisis was no exception. I spent almost two decades studying seven individuals and the teams they led during high-stakes situations. As I came to know these people and their moments, I narrowed my focus to five leaders, each of whom found him or herself in a crisis and each of whom resolved to do whatever they could to rise to the occasion, and each of whom became better—more courageous, more resilient, and more focused—in the doing. Not surprisingly, this “forging” had a big, big impact on what each of these people accomplished in the larger world. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that Abraham Lincoln could not have led (and transformed) the United States during the Civil War or that Rachel Carson could not have done so much to launch the modern environmental movement without the work they each did on themselves.
So, this is the context in which I think about the enduring aspects of real leadership, all of which are worth emulating today. Perhaps the most important of these aspects is that serious, decent leaders are made, not born. They are made from a combination of nature and nurture; a realization on the part of the individual that he or she is living in a moment that demands their leadership, and the individual’s willingness to embrace the cause and get in the game.
The second aspect is that a leader’s potential to create positive change, to accomplish a worthy mission, begins within him or herself. This means that respecting and nurturing one’s self-awareness and emotional discipline are critical. A corollary here is that great leaders intentionally work on themselves, all their lives. For example, as a boy, Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century Black leader, taught himself to read by bribing boys on the street, using bread in exchange for knowledge of the alphabet. As a teenager and young adult, he honed the art of public speaking. During the Civil War, he discovered reserves of forbearance that helped give way to new perspectives on the struggle to end slavery.
A third aspect is the shift—again, first within the individual person—from a life defined by one’s personal agenda and ambitions to a (richer, more satisfying) one in which personal drive is subordinated to a broader end, one inexorably linked with service to others. In the language of the philosopher Martin Buber, the “I” becomes “Thou” for real leaders, and their actions and impact are greatly enhanced by this shift.
A fourth aspect of great leaders is that they recognize the critical role that reflection, solitude, and detachment play in their work and thus consistently make the time and space to lead themselves in these respects. They know what so many of us seem to have lost track of today, and that is we cannot do the messy, exhausting, and deeply satisfying work of living our right lives by stroking our phones.
A fifth aspect is that serious leaders understand that encounters with failure, like moments of crisis, are classrooms of personal development that teach one much more than one’s triumphs. The explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose team of 27 men was marooned on an iceberg off the coast of Antarctica for more than a year beginning in 1915, grew in resilience, determination, and ingenuity as the obstacles facing the crew (and the odds against their survival) climbed.
It’s important to remember that such forging in crisis only happened because Shackleton—like Lincoln in the darkest hours of the Civil War, or civil rights leaders in late 1962 when the campaign in Albany, Georgia had largely failed—resolved to make something new and good of himself, even as he was hemmed in by enormous difficulties. It’s as if Shackleton (and Lincoln and civil rights leaders) led themselves through these trials by saying, “From the fear, failure, vulnerability, and troubles I now face, I will get through this and be stronger and more determined in the process.” And so, they did. Our world is better for the consequences that flowed from such conviction and self-leadership.
Let me conclude with a sixth aspect, which is that real leaders lead from their humanity. What I mean by this is that they use their personal experience, particularly their empathy, to help motivate and sustain others. We can see this capacity in the Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer supporting ecclesiastical opponents of the Third Reich during the late 1930s. We can also see it in John Lewis, C. T. Vivian, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other civil rights leaders, who drew from their encounters with hatred and discrimination to comfort, inspire, and educate thousands of other Black Americans and to engage white Americans in the struggle, as Lewis often said, “to redeem the soul of America.”
GrowthPolicy: You are a historian who also teaches business management. We live in a world that frequently devalues the past, seeing it as inert, dead, and possessing nothing of value. What would be your argument for teaching history in business school and policy programs such as those at Harvard Kennedy School?
Nancy Koehn: Mark Twain once said that “the past does not repeat itself precisely, but sometimes it does rhyme.” This observation captures my commitment to teaching history to today’s decision-makers, many of whom are business executives. I also work with and coach a variety of leaders, including doctors, museum directors, diplomats, police chiefs, foundation directors, university officials, social entrepreneurs, and more. I have been doing this for more than twenty-five years, so I can say with great confidence that knowing the “rhymes” of a particular moment or set of individuals in the past provides valuable perspective, actionable tools, and—in some cases—even a dose of wisdom to men and women making choices today.
This is especially true in high-stakes situations, when the pressures to act quickly are very great. History can make a big difference here, because it offers a lens on other moments of intense volatility and how other leaders dealt with such circumstances. Think about John Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came very, very close to nuclear war (I am writing another HBS case about this moment and Kennedy’s leadership after United States intelligence discovered in October 1962 that the Soviet Union had secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba.) One of the reasons the U. S. president consistently moved more slowly and deliberately toward military aggression with the Soviet Union than most of his advisers recommended is because he had recently read a book about the start of World War I, when European leaders hurled their respective nations into global conflict. Kennedy was determined to avoid such precipitate decision-making and the mass carnage and destruction that would flow from this.
There is another, more subtle, aspect to the power of learning history for virtually everyone right now. And this is that knowing the stories of past leaders, their trials and triumphs, and the stage on which they worked, offers real inspiration to each of us: to get involved in a worthy endeavor, to access our stronger selves, to move into the fear, as Nelson Mandela advised, in order to learn we can triumph over it, or to simply keep calm and carry on.
Again and again, I have witnessed the power and fuel such stories provide today’s leaders. This has been especially true during the pandemic when all kinds of people who lead—companies, hospitals, and families—have been under tremendous pressure and faced huge obstacles. Learning more about Shackleton’s actions during the almost two years he struggled to bring his men home alive, understanding Mandela’s journey through decades of imprisonment, or taking stock of Rachel Carson’s fight to outrun cancer while she tried to finish Silent Spring have tightened our courage muscles and motivated us, especially in moments when we wanted to give up. This is a very good reason for all kinds of people and institutions to be teaching, reading, and absorbing history.