By Bob Sutton

“Describe your worst people nightmare. Describe what it cost you.”

That’s the assignment historian Nancy Koehn gives the students in her leadership class at the Harvard Business School. When I interviewed Nancy for the first episode of our new season of the FRICTION podcast, she explained that most leaders she teaches and coaches are adept at the “technical” aspects of management. What blindsides them, brings down their teams and organizations, gets them fired, and keeps them up at night are those complicated, unpredictable, and emotional people who they lead, follow, and otherwise are responsible for influencing, inspiring, and sometimes, discouraging and defeating.

Nancy’s latest book Forged in Crisis dissects how five courageous leaders navigated, persisted, suffered, and succeed in the face of extreme obstacles. “People nightmares” — and why and how those courageous leaders overcame and avoided such messes — are center stage throughout the book. Skill and sensitivity pertinent to the human side of leadership pervades explorer Earnest Shackleton’s heroic efforts to save his shipwrecked crew; President Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom as he led the Union during the U.S. Civil War; abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’ campaign against slavery and other racist oppressions; clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s effective resistance against the Nazis during World War II; and activist Rachel Carson’s writing, publicity efforts, and speaking, which helped launch and propel the environmental movement in the 1960s.

I was struck by three lessons during my conversation with Nancy on the FRICTION podcast. The first is how she defined the word “leader,” given her focus on courage and effectiveness. Nancy turned to a surprising source: The late novelist David Foster Wallace (best known as the author of Infinite Jest). In a Rolling Stone article that Wallace wrote in 2000 about John McCain’s presidential campaign, he pointed out the word “leader” is a boring cliché — our eyes glaze over when we hear the term. Wallace added, however, that “real leaders” aren’t boring at all, because they “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.” Those are the kind of leaders that Forged in Crisis is about — they overcome friction, frustration, and fatigue by somehow inducing their followers (and themselves too) to become more resolute, stronger, and smarter rather than to flee, flounder, and lose hope.

That kind of leadership, for example, is evident in the many ways that Fredrick Douglass rallied support against slavery, gave hope to the enslaved, and provided direct assistance to escaped slaves who sought freedom. Douglass gave compelling speeches that inspired and recruited abolitionists; he published the North Star, a weekly serial that included antislavery speeches, news from recent abolitionist meetings, and editorials; and he helped fugitive slaves who escaped via the “Underground Railroad.” Douglas and his wife Anna offered food, clothing, lodging, and advice to weary fugitives who arrived on the doorstep of his home and office in Rochester, New York. By battling slavery and mobilizing others in so many large and small ways, Douglass pushed and persuaded abolitionists and slaves to overcome their limitations and “do better, harder things.”

Second, a hallmark of those courageous leaders is that each suffered through stretches where they stepped back, felt defeated, or descended into a state of despair (and in some cases, like Lincoln, probably suffered episodes of clinical depression). Nancy emphasizes that even the best leaders suffer through stretches of self-doubt and exhaustion. Along the way, however, they come to understand how to dampen their flaws and accentuate their strengths — in part, by finding and working with others who can fill the leadership gaps they create, restore their flagging spirits, compensate for their weaknesses, and accentuate their strengths.

In the “cold opening” to the podcast, I ask Nancy, “If you had a magic wand and could change things about modern leaders, what would you pick?” She answers, “Pry them open and make them come face-to-face with their own vulnerability.” As I’ve written elsewhere, developing such self-awareness depends on people who will tell you the truth about your missteps and blind spots — and you can listen to and learn from. For example, that’s what Clementine Churchill did for her husband Winston when he was Prime Minister of England during darkest days of World War II.

Third, Nancy emphasizes that to make progress against severe friction — as all her courageous leaders did — you’ve got acknowledge the difficulty of the situation to both yourself and your followers. To paraphrase, Nancy says otherwise it is like sailing the ocean without acknowledging that there will be large waves and strong headwinds. That is why the courageous leaders she studied each, in some way or another, realized they couldn’t succeed alone, that they had to get beyond their narcissistic selves and go “from I to thou.” They each recruited similarly unselfish helpers, followers, and fellow leaders. For Lincoln, this included recruiting and fomenting healthy conflict within the “team of rivals” in his cabinet. For Rachel Carson, this meant relying on a diverse collection of scientists, biologists, fisherman, editors, publishers, journalists, and politicians who helped her write Silent Spring and launch the modern environmental movement. As Nancy suggests, none of the heroic leaders she studied were “solo supermen.” Each was adept and mobilizing and motivating others to join and bolster a common cause. These five leaders also worked to understand and develop empathy for their enemies — because it was useful for undermining and defeating them.

This post just provides a taste of Nancy’s interview on the FRICTION podcast. You can find topics and guests here for all 12 episodes of our second season. You can listen to Nancy’s episode, subscribe to Season 2, and listen to the 11 episodes from Season 1 on iTunes or Stitcher.

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