Courageous Leadership Begins with Me

book cover, Forged in Crisis by Nancy KoehnI think that all of us want the best for the congregations, communities, and organizations we serve. However, we may not often reflect deeply about how our own self-awareness plays a crucial role in the capacity to lead in our various settings. Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian, in her newly released book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, offers a fascinating exploration of how a leader’s internal life shapes the leader’s external action and influence. [1]

Koehn’s book unfolds simply. She tells the story of five remarkable persons who faced challenging contexts and found ways to exert meaningful leadership. The stories of Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rachel Carson create a rich backdrop to draw out the lines and shapes that characterize the inner life of leaders. What emerges from these stories offers an impressive set of dynamics for those of us who desire to be faithful to God and to our true selves in the practice of leadership.

Although the five persons whom Koehn studied were very different and possessed distinct missions, she nonetheless traces common characteristics among her subjects. Each of these five persons were quite human; they were persons who had experienced great pain in life, yet still led through their humanity. They were curious people who sought to understand what was happening around them. They experienced failure and great disappointment.

I find it interesting that each of them had great ambition—yet their ambition came to serve some larger mission in the world. All of them were willing to work on themselves and eagerly sought out opportunities to learn and grow. They were committed to remaining emotionally aware of themselves and of others. They assessed their own feelings and insights into what was happening around them. And they used their insights to bring about constructive change within their sphere of influence.

In particular, Koehn notes the following three perspectives common to these leaders:

  1. Each of these leaders utilized and valued solitude and reflection. They recognized the need to slow down and to refrain from reactionary responses—even to the point of being content to do nothing at all for a time.
  2. Each of these leaders were committed to a deep and worthy goal that was much bigger than themselves. The mission was big but the path to that goal was flexible. They demonstrated adaptability in accomplishing their mission.
  3. Each of these leaders were persons of great resilience. Each faced crisis and calamity but those seasons merely created opportunity for personal growth and learning. Bonhoeffer would call such places “boundary situations.” It is often in those times that personal and spiritual growth can best occur!

I commend Koehn’s book—it’s amazing to see a secular leadership book speak so overtly about Christian faith and commitment—especially as it plays out in Bonhoeffer’s story. My hope for you is that you will find time and space this week to reflect on your own journey of leadership. How are you learning and growing? How big is your mission and task in life? And how are you moving forward in and through your own very human struggles?

[1] Nancy Koehn, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times (Scribner, 2017).

Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.

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Author:  Publish Date: February 26, 2018

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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