Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders

Posted April 30, 2020 in Communication, Latest News & Insights, Leadership, What We're Reading

Book coverof Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders

By: Nancy Koehn

Reviewed by: Shelby Gobbo

The Premise:

Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn highlights the profiles of five remarkable leaders and uses their profiles and stories to produce of book full of tools to help facilitate courageous leadership behaviours. Featuring Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Carson – five leaders who are so drastically different in every which way, Koehn helps us to explore a specific type of leadership: courageous leadership.

This multi-dimensional book walks through the lives and trials of all five leaders and shares how all of these leaders were made and not born. Koehn’s argument is that real leaders are made and not born, they are “Forged in Crisis.” At a time like this, during a global pandemic, it’s interesting to read through stories of leaders during previous global struggles, and see how their character and perseverance guide and inspire people through the difficult times.

The book is broken in 5 separate stories for each leader, with cross-references and ties to situational examples from each other leader for comparison. Koehn starts each section of the book with an outline and brief history of that leader’s specific crisis, starting with Shackleton’s epic polar voyage disaster: the sinking of his ship The Endurance. She then moves back to the individual’s childhood and narrates how they began to grow, with the experiences, step by step, that would make them into the person they become. She closes each section with a highlight of everyone’s leadership apex, the moment in history that they are most remembered for. Finally, she includes a dedicated chapter for each leader to outline the lessons we have learned from them and “what the world looks like after” each one of them.

The Bottom-line:

I had this book on my “to read” list for a while now. A few years ago I was sitting in a large lecture hall at Harvard Business School listening to Nancy Koehn speak to the extraordinary passion and character of five leaders: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Carson, who are featured in the book, and their extraordinary passion and perseverance. I left the lecture with plans to read her book, but like many of us, put it aside for later and later never came. Until, 6 weeks ago when I saw this book I had put aside with the title glaring at me “Forged in Crisis”, and I thought, now more than ever is the time to read through the pages of this book – how timely! It is now more than ever that I am eager to learn from leaders before who forged through their crisis.

Nancy Koehn has packed the incredible stories of five gritty leaders into one package. What she brings together through all of them, is the way they lead with passion and perseverance – and ultimately, changed history because of the way they lead.  One of the biggest lessons that stuck out for me was the ability of the leaders to acknowledge the fears of others, then, instil encouragement and then resolve. This resonated so strongly as this is the type of leadership we are yearning for as we move through the COVID-19 global pandemic.


I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for inspiration as they lead through crisis or turbulent times. If you’re looking for a book that’s both moving and coherent, then this fits the slot. It’s a book about five leaders and their values-based leadership over the century. The book is just shy of 500 pages, so make sure you set some time aside to fully enjoy all it has to offer!

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