Book Review: Forged in Crisis

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I’ve been a big fan of Professor Nancy Koehn’s work since I read her book, Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust from Wedgewood To Dell. In that book, Professor Koehn told the stories of six entrepreneurs. Drawing on those stories, she analyzed various historical forces and how they play out in entrepreneurial activity. The stories were well-told. The analysis was insightful. That’s what I expected from Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times. Well, one out of two ain’t bad.

The Stories

The stories at the core of this book are about Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson. This was an interesting mix of subjects for me. I had read some about Shackleton, a lot about Lincoln, hardly anything about Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson. As a preacher’s son with some family connections to the people in the Bonhoeffer saga, I felt like I had a unique perspective on his life.

I learned something about all five people from this book. I’m grateful for that. I also think that you can learn many leadership lessons from the stories. The stories are worth the price of the book.

The Leadership Analysis

I was gravely disappointed by the quality of the analysis in this book. They more like afterthoughts than the organic result of careful analysis. Much of the time the analysis didn’t seem to have required much thought at all.

The conclusion is titled “The Power of Courageous Leadership.” There, Professor Koehn tells us that the most important thing that connects these leaders is “that these leaders were made, not born.” That might have been a penetrating insight back when I was in college and it was common to read biographies of leaders who basically sprang from the womb equipped to lead. In the early 21st Century, it doesn’t seem quite so stunning.

We’re told that “All five leaders were willing to work on themselves.” Does that strike you as a major insight? I think it’s true, but it’s not new or helpful. There are some interesting things about how they used solitude and writing to make sense of things, but that’s not big stuff. That’s the kind of thing you can get from a motivational speaker.

Then, we’re told that “The second thing that each of the five leaders learned as they navigated through great turbulence was the significance of committing to a worthy goal.” That makes it sound like there was a sudden awakening, but that’s not what I take out of the stories. The five people profiled discovered the importance the issues and the depth of their resources by taking one step forward at a time. Also, frankly, if they hadn’t committed to a worthy goal and succeeded, we wouldn’t be writing about them.

The third lesson that they all learned was the value of resilience. That’s not exactly stop the presses stuff.

Finally, we have this, “Part of the reason that these five ordinary people could do extraordinary things was that they led from their humanity.” Elsewhere, she says that they led from their “stronger selves.” My question is, “What else would they lead from?”

There are a lot of good leadership lessons in this book, but they come directly out of the stories. The analysis doesn’t help. Sometimes it gets in the way.

In A Nutshell

Overall, the stories in this book are very good, but the leadership analysis feels like it’s bolted on, perhaps added as an afterthought. The book felt like something that was done on assignment. I have no idea what the assignment might be, whether it was thinking “Gosh, I haven’t written a book in a long time. Maybe I should do another one,” or “I should write another book to make some money,” or something else. There was great passion in the storytelling. The analysis seemed forced.

My advice to you is this. If you want to read some good stories about real leaders in real situations, buy Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times and read it for those stories. You’ll get your money’s worth. If you’re looking for analysis to make sense of it all, look elsewhere.


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