LEADERSHIP development is a very personal endeavor. The better you become, the better your leadership becomes.
It is a misconception of leadership that if you engage in the best practices of a great leader, you will become that leader. Applying the idea that if I do this or if I have this quality I will become a great leader like my chosen mentor, can derail your leadership development.
That said, there are principles you can discover that if adhered to will propel you in the right direction. Harvard professor Nancy Koehn illuminates some of these principles for us in Forged in Crisis as seen through the lives of five exemplary leaders: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, President Abraham Lincoln, legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and environmental crusader Rachel Carson. These principles set the stage for leadership effectiveness, but the decision to step into leadership is yours alone.
Koehn borrows from David Foster Wallace and defines an effective leader as one “who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
Coach Tom Landry said it this way: “Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.” Henry Kissinger said, “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” It’s intentional influence. But the ability to do that doesn’t come to us naturally. We have to work at it. But that’s good news. We can all get there. Leaders are not born, they are forged.
Each of the leaders Koehn has chosen faced an uncertain outcome in the midst of a crisis. Shackleton was marooned on an Antarctic ice floe trying to bring his men home alive; Lincoln was on the verge of seeing the Union collapse even as he tried to save it; escaped slave Douglass faced possible capture while wanting to free black Americans held in slavery; Bonhoeffer was agonizing over how to counter absolute evil with faith while imprisoned by the Gestapo; Carson raced against the cancer ravaging her to finish her book Silent Spring, in a bid to save the planet.
The crisis that can break one person can give birth to leadership in another. It’s a conscious choice to lead. Koehn brings out key lessons common to these people as they struggled with their thoughts in what were do or die situations. Here are some of the lessons that we should all take to heart:
They Were Made, Not Born
These leaders “were made into effective leaders as they walked their respective paths, tried to understand what was happening around them, and encountered failure and disappointment.”
They Were Ambitious but…
“The drive to make their respective marks was important in shaping them. It took each of them some of the way. But then, interestingly, ambition ceased to motivate and influence them as it once had. As they discovered a larger purpose and embraced it, each found his or her impetus, strength, and validation in the mission itself.” And importantly, Koehn adds, that “their leadership was partly shaped by a willingness to subordinate personal drive in a broader end, one inexorably linked with service to others.”
They Did the Inner Work of Leadership
They all worked on themselves, looking for opportunities to grow. “They did not do this as a single endeavor, but rather as a lifelong project in which they each kept working on themselves, learning specific lessons, developing more resilience, and using these resources to lead more effectively.”
(“Lincoln would have been flummoxed by talk of authentic leadership when he told a few constituents in 1862 that he did not have the luxury of publically expressing his disappointment about Union army defeats.”)
They Understood the Importance of Solitude
These leaders learned to detach themselves from the situation in order to see things from different perspectives. They “learned how to step back from a specific instant, assess the larger landscape, take the measure of their own emotions, and only then make a decision about what, if anything, they wanted to do.” Reflection and solitude helped them stay focused on the big picture.
They Learned to Manage Their Emotions
In dark moments, what Bonhoeffer called a “boundary situation,” they determined to manage their emotions. It was not willful blindness or forced optimism. They knew what they were up against. “Because they did, they used their emotional awareness and discipline to concentrate directly, almost exclusively, on how to move forward, how to take the next step, however small.” These people realized that “the emotional penetrability they experienced and that caused them so much suffering was also a door into new insights about themselves and new ways of being in the world.”
They Learned to Respond Rather Than to React
“At times, doing nothing at all was the best action each of these leaders could take. Time and time again as president, [Lincoln] refused to be goaded by the force of his own emotions or of those around him into taking precipitate action that might compromise his larger mission. Even when he was at his most frustrated, he managed somehow to acknowledge his feelings without acting on them in a way that was destructive to larger matters.”
They Were Resilient
Though these leaders didn’t always see a way through in the heat of the moment, “they vowed to find a way through the obstacles they confronted. They came out the other side of calamity without falling through the floorboards of doubt, without giving up on their mission and themselves.”
All five leaders were well chosen because of their humanity. They were not born leaders. They became leaders through successes, but mostly through failures and mistakes. Leaders can come from anywhere. As we look around the world today, if we are looking for larger-than-life heroes, we misunderstand what leadership is.
Although these leaders appear to be larger than life to us now, as you read their stories you see that they are you and me. They are ordinary people in turbulent and trying circumstances. They were often overwhelmed and depressed, but they kept moving on. What distinguishes these people from many of the leaders we see today is their approach to the experiences of their lives. Throughout their lives, they purposefully extracted the lessons they needed to grow. It was thoughtful and intentional. If you go through life any other way, you are just collecting experiences to no end. Experiences alone ensure nothing. We must reflect on them to gain insights and learn from them.