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Forged in Crisis

The Making of Five Courageous Leaders

About The Book


“Five gritty leaders whose extraordinary passion and perseverance changed history…a gripping read on a timeless and timely topic” —Angela Duckworth, #1 bestselling author of Grit

An enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights, Forged in Crisis, by celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, 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.

What do such disparate figures have in common? Why do their extraordinary stories continue to amaze and inspire? In delivering the answers to those questions, Nancy Koehn offers a remarkable template by which to judge those in our own time to whom the public has given its trust.

She begins each of the book’s five sections by showing her protagonist on the precipice of a great crisis: Shackleton marooned on an Antarctic ice floe; Lincoln on the verge of seeing the Union collapse; escaped slave Douglass facing possible capture; Bonhoeffer agonizing over how to counter absolute evil with faith; Carson racing against the cancer ravaging her in a bid to save the planet. The narrative then reaches back to each person’s childhood and shows the individual growing—step by step—into the person he or she will ultimately become. Significantly, as we follow each leader’s against-all-odds journey, we begin to glean an essential truth: leaders are not born but made. In a book dense with epiphanies, the most galvanizing one may be that the power to lead courageously resides in each of us.

Whether it’s read as a repository of great insight or as exceptionally rendered human drama, Forged in Crisis stands as a towering achievement.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Forged in Crisis includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Forged in Crisis tells the story of five great leaders—Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson—and their journeys of perseverance and self-actualization in the face of enormous challenges. All driven by a higher purpose, all willing to make great personal sacrifices, these five men and women carried out their life’s work in times of great inner and outer turmoil. Shackleton led his men, stranded at the bottom of the world, safely home to England. Lincoln saw the United States through the bloody, divisive Civil War, bringing an end to slavery in the process. Douglass, himself an escaped slave, relentlessly campaigned for abolition. Bonhoeffer’s commitment to Christ drove him to fight against Hitler’s regime. And Carson published her seminal work, Silent Spring, as pesticide companies tried to discredit her and metastasizing cancer sapped her reserves of energy. Each leader was made, not born, forged in a crucible of dramatic extremity, and from each we can draw valuable lessons about how to live—and lead—today.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In her introduction, Nancy Koehn quotes David Foster Wallace, who wrote, “Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please.” Does this statement apply to the five leaders described in this book? How did Shackleton, Lincoln, Douglass, Bonhoeffer, and Carson work to inspire loyalty?

2. What role did Shackleton’s December 1914 decision to sail for Antarctica, against the advice of local whalers, play in the ultimate fate of his vessel? How much responsibility do you think Shackleton felt for that decision?

3. When the Endurance was finally crushed by pack ice, stranding Shackleton and his men thousands of miles from civilization, he immediately altered his mission from crossing the southern continent to bringing his crew safely home. What lessons does this decision have for modern leaders?

4. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he reminded the nation that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Despite his solemn plea, the United States was soon to be at war. How did Lincoln’s resolve to keep the Union together change and develop over his presidency?

5. How was Lincoln, over the course of his life, made into an effective leader? What were the factors that contributed to his successes?

6. In an 1847 speech to a British audience, Douglass said that he planned to go back to America “for the sake of [his] brethren.” Dedication to a higher cause, at great personal risk, is one of the attributes that tie all five leaders together. What was at stake for Douglass in returning to America? What was at stake for the other four leaders in their commitment to their missions?

7. Douglass and Lincoln are the only two leaders in the book who lived at the same time, met each other, and whose struggles coalesced around the same larger battle. How did each come to his commitment to the abolitionist cause? How did their different personal histories shape their commitment?

8. Bonhoeffer wrote, during his brief time in New York, of his despair and certainty that he had made the wrong decision in leaving Germany. How did this “dark night of the soul” influence his later work?

9. Despite his years-long commitment to fighting Nazism, Bonhoeffer himself was only responsible for saving the lives of fourteen people; all plots to assassinate Hitler ultimately failed. Is Bonhoeffer a failure? What is the significance of his life’s work?

10. Carson faced particularly female burdens, especially in the earlier part of her life, related to the care of her family. How did these burdens impact her ability to do meaningful work? What are the other limitations that women in leadership positions often face, historically and in the present day?

11. Carson, unlike the other four leaders, struggled with her health at the time of her greatest triumph. Consider the relationship between Carson’s physical well-being and the subject of her work—and how Shackleton, Lincoln, Douglass, and Bonhoeffer’s physical strength or weakness influenced their performance.

12. The leaders in this book were driven by willingness to improve themselves, desire to serve the greater good, drive for success, and strength in the face of crisis. What other threads tie these leaders together?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Consider reading one of these great leaders’ works, like Carson’s Silent Spring, Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.

2. Though there are no recordings of either Lincoln’s or Douglass’s speeches, they do survive in printed form. Read, pick your favorite, and discuss.

3. In tribute to Carson’s and Shackleton’s deep love of nature, move your book club outdoors.

About The Author

Photograph by Steven Richard

Nancy Koehn is an historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. She has coached leaders from many organizations and speaks frequently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the World Business ForumAn accomplished author and scholar (she earned her MA and PhD degrees in history from Harvard), she spent ten years writing Forged in Crisis, her first book aimed at a popular audience. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and is a dedicated equestrian. 

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

“Each of the five stand-alone case studies is well-written and interesting . . . there is much to enjoy [here].”
New York Times

“I recommend that you read Forged in Crisis. Nancy Koehn has convened an exquisite group to remind us that courageous leadership is indeed possible, in turbulent times or any time.” 
—James S. Hirsch, for

“Enthralling . . . a fascinating look at a varied group of heroes . . . Koehn’s call for her audience to emulate them strikes a pleasingly hopeful note for an era of partisan discord and lack of faith in leaders.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Koehn skillfully weaves together [her five leaders’] stories and the lessons, primary of which is ‘great leaders are made, not born.' . . . [The] stories are highly engaging (and well documented); in fact, many are transformed into nail-biting adventures . . . A book that quietly surpasses many so-called leadership tomes.”
—Booklist (Starred Review)

“[An] engaging, unusually rewarding book . . . Throughout, Koehn underscores the great humanity and depth of understanding of these leaders . . . Wise, thoughtful, and valuable, this book will foster a new appreciation for effective leadership and prompt many readers to lament the lack of it in the world today.”
—Kirkus (Starred Review)

"Leadership is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. At a time when it has become almost invisible at the national level, Nancy Koehn has performed the invaluable service of reminding us what it looks like in five superbly told tales of inspirational human courage. This book is dense with epiphanies that defy our current cowardly condition."
Joseph J. Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers and the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx

"A remarkably insightful book, written in a style that is consistently engaging and absorbing, which reminds us that leaders are made not born, and that the crucibles from which they emerge are, above all, tests of character . . . This book is a wonder—exactly the leadership roadmap needed for these challenging times."
—Les Wexner, Chairman and CEO of L Brands

"This book moved me deeply and will stay with me. Forged in Crisis is a compelling historical work and a vital analysis of the skills required to lead in the most important—and often dire—situations."
—Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company

"As important and inspiring as it is urgent."
—Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP and three-term mayor of New York City

"A double triumph, artfully telling us the stories of five major historical figures while also providing wise insights into how they seized upon crises to grow as leaders. Each of the portraits will help leaders of today in coping with rapid, turbulent change.  And here's an extra bonus: they are great reads."
David Gergen, Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Eyewitness to Power

"A close analysis of five gritty leaders whose extraordinary passion and perseverance changed history . . . a gripping read on a timeless and timely topic!"
—Angela Duckworth, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Grit

"Emotionally gripping—so much so that it's easy to forget one is reading nonfiction. The scenes have the pull of a great novel, continually coaxing us to turn pages."
Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School and author of The Powers to Lead

"Koehn's well-written and incisive study helps to show us the way to a better nation. . . This is a very perceptive look at leadership in the modern era that taps leadership qualities from the past."
—Bruce Chadwick, author of Law and Disorder, James and Dolly Madison, and The General and Mrs. Washington

“A powerful and timely treatise on leadership, Forged in Crisis presents five compelling portraits of individuals who made a lasting impact on the world in times of extraordinary challenge. Nancy Koehn is a seriously talented historian who has a gift for mining the past to elucidate the present. She writes with verve and vivid detail.”
—Graham Allison, Founding Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, former Assistant Secretary of Defense, and author of Essence of Decision and Destined for War

“Nancy Koehn vividly shows the qualities shared by five of history's greatest leaders—and how we can all tap into those same qualities to overcome challenges and confront crises in our own lives. Forged in Crisis is an inspirational, insightful and indispensable guide to perseverance, wisdom and resilience.”
—Arianna Huffington, Founder of The Huffington Post and Founder and CEO of Thrive Global

"An outstanding rebuttal of the myth that leaders somehow have different DNA than ordinary people. [Koehn's subjects] ought to inspire every aspiring leader to rise to the occasion."
—William P. Lauder, Executive Chairman, The Estée Lauder Companies

“Vividly recreates the anguish and urgency felt by five trailblazing leaders in times of great adversity. With spirited prose that highlights crucial moments of testing and triumph, Nancy Koehn breathes life into the past as she shows what it takes to lead. In challenging times, this book is an essential read.”
—Zoë Baird, CEP and President, The Markle Foundation

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