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What Abraham Lincoln and Rachel Carson can teach us about leadership

Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., have a lot to learn from the past, says Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn.

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Abraham Lincoln Portrait Session

When she started writing a book about leadership, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn knew that she had a bit of an uphill battle: Books about leadership are legion, and often “eyes-glazingly cliche.”

“I was determined, as a historian, to say, ‘Can I figure out something gritty and serious and accessible to say about leadership?’” Koehn said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “That took me to this new book, which took forever and a day to write.”

“Forever and a day,” in Koehn’s case, refers to the 10 years she poured into “Forged in Crisis,” which profiles five leaders from history who had to overcome major hardships, many of them life-threatening. Her subjects include President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and author Rachel Carson, who raced to finish her iconic environmentalist book “Silent Spring” while battling breast cancer.

“No real leader ever settles for ‘It’s about money,’” Koehn said. “If you’re really defined and motivated and shaped in your darkest moments by the purpose — the North Star you’re headed towards — it can’t be money. It has to be something that involves a larger group of people.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Koehn drew connections among the subjects of “Forged in Crisis” and leaders of today, including President Donald Trump, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. She said Abraham Lincoln’s use of speeches and writing to unite people around larger ideals is not unlike Elon Musk’s consistent advocacy for technology that will benefit humanity’s future.

“If he talks about space travel, he’s talking about it in the context of where we are as a global village, right now, and why this is important,” Koehn said. “Very few people that we have access to in our crowded media moment, at a governing level or leadership level, are doing that. It’s incredibly important.”

And although he had no social media in the modern sense intruding on his White House, Lincoln did have to contend with a flood of information from the front lines of the Civil War and challenges to his presidency on all fronts. His strength was the ability to not let those pressures undermine his presidency.

“When the stakes are high and you’re emotionally hot under the collar, do nothing right away,” Koehn said. “Don’t hit send, don’t hit post, don’t hit tweet. Do nothing. There’s all kinds of examples of Lincoln having emotional control, even when he was really upset, and it actually making a huge benefit. Control yourself to wait.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

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