Book offers insights into what makes a great leader

Most people are familiar with the phrase “a born leader,” but are leaders truly born? In her book, “Forged in Crisis,” historian and Harvard professor Nancy Koehn makes a convincing case that the roots of leadership are not a matter of birthright.

Rather, effective leaders are forged through their ability to confront adversity, see the humanity in others and make difficult choices.

To illustrate her point, Koehn walks us through the lives and crises faced by five leaders throughout history, including British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, German pastor and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer and American biologist and writer Rachel Carson. This disparate group confronted different challenges, but they also shared some commonalities that enabled them to become extraordinary leaders, as Koehn explains in the book.

While great leaders like Lincoln are familiar to American audiences, Koehn also brings to light the work of individuals like Bonhoeffer, whose heroism during World War II went largely unacknowledged for decades. As a Christian, Bonhoeffer vocally denounced Hitler’s fascism and mass genocide of Jewish people, which made him an early target of the fascist movement.

Bonhoeffer fled Germany for the U.S., only to return, infiltrate the German Intelligence Office and help plan an ultimately failed plot to assassinate Hitler. For this, he and other members of his family were imprisoned and eventually executed. Through her retelling of Bonhoeffer’s life and death, Koehn explores the altruism and moral fortitude that led him to abandon a safe, secure life in the U.S. to fight German fascism, all the while knowing that such a decision could endanger his entire family and cost him his life.

Leaders like marine biologist and author Carson faced yet another form of trial by fire: going against big corporations to disseminate urgent, valuable research to an unknowing public. In 1962, Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published. Meticulous and thoroughly researched, the book linked America’s growing use of pesticides to an uptick in cancer rates and other environmental crises — for instance, how DDT made birds’ eggs more thin-shelled and brittle, causing them to break prematurely. Not only was Carson’s work staunchly opposed by chemical companies, she had to battle through personal health crises and societal constraints — such as caring for a family — that in many ways shackled women during that point in American history. Yet Carson’s important work ultimately contributed to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School, and she spent 10 years writing “Forged in Crisis.” Her book offers fresh insights into the power of strong leadership during difficult times, as well as a compelling look at the lives of five courageous individuals who truly made a difference.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Koehn airs in March. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at

“Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times”

by Nancy Koehn;

Scribner ($35)