Nancy F. Koehn

James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on entrepreneurial leadership and how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.  She is currently working on a book about the most important lessons from five leaders’ journeys, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson.  Her most recent book, Ernest Shackleton:  Exploring Leadership , (2012), examines the important leadership lessons in Shackleton's legendary Endurance expedition. 

Koehn is also the author of Oprah (Brand) Renew (2011);Oprah:  Leading with Heart (2011); The Story of American Business:  From the Pages of the New York Times (2009); Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell (2001) and The Power of Commerce: Economy and Governance in the First British Empire (1994), as well as a contributor to Creative Capitalism:  A Conversation with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other Economic Leaders (2008); Remember Who You Are: Life Stories That Inspire the Heart and Mind (2004); Beauty and Business (2000); The Intellectual Venture Capitalist: John H. McArthur and the Work of the Harvard Business School, 1980-1995 (1999); Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions (1997); and Management Past and Present: A Casebook on American Business History (1995). She has written and supervised cases on  Starbucks Coffee Company, Ernest Shackleton,Oprah Winfrey, Bono and U2,  Whole Foods, Stonyfield Yogurt, Wedgwood, Estée Lauder, Henry Heinz, Milton Hershey, Celeste Walker, Marshall Field, Dell Computer, and other leaders and organizations.

Koehn consults with many companies and speaks frequently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival and the World Business Forum.  She has appeared on "American Experience," "Good Morning America," Bloomberg Televison, CNBC's "Moneywheel," "The NewsHour," A&E's "Biography," CNN's "Money Line" and many other television programs. She writes regularly for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio and the BBC.   In 2012, Poets and Quants ranked Koehn as one of the World’s 50 Best Business School Professors.

Koehn is a director of Tempur Sealy International and the clothing retailer, Fashion to Figure.

Before coming to HBS, Koehn was a member of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences for seven years, first as a graduate student in history and then as a lecturer in the History and Literature concentration and the Department of Economics.  A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard.

Koehn lives outside Boston and is an avid equestrian.

  1. Lincoln’s School of Management

    The legacy of Abraham Lincoln hangs over every American president. To free a people, to preserve the Union, “to bind up the nation's wounds”: Lincoln's presidency, at a moment of great moral passion in the country's history, is a study in high-caliber leadership.
  2. Harvard's Koehn on Government, Corporate Leadership

    Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, talks about government and corporate leadership. Koehn speaks with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop.” 
  3. From Calm Leadership, Lasting Change

    She was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.
  4. Leadership Lessons From the Shackleton Expedition

    A HUNDRED years ago this month, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and four teammates became the first men to reach the South Pole, arriving in triumph five weeks ahead of Robert Falcon Scott. The Amundsen crew would return safely to its base, but, heartbreakingly, Scott and his four British companions died on the return journey.

    The race to the pole has long attracted leadership experts, who like to contrast the Amundsen focus on efficiency and innovation with Scott’s more deliberate dedication to scientific pursuit.

    But another polar explorer — Ernest Shackleton — faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to our time. The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again.
  5. Putting Steve Jobs in Perspective

    This piece is part of On Leadership roundtable exploring Tim Cook’s succession of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, and how to follow in the footsteps of an icon.
  6. A Conversation with Nancy Koehn

    Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn discusses what attributes make an effective leader and some of her favorite successful entrepreneurs. Video produced in partnership with Big Think.

  7. The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times

    For over 150 years, the New York Times has been the United States' newspaper of record. With unmatched breadth, depth, and quality of reporting, its coverage is consistently authoritative and absorbing.This unique collection of the Times' most fascinating and relevant articles about business opens a compelling window onto how one of the most powerful economies in human history came to be, including the men and women who have helped create it. Introduced and narrated by Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, The Story of American Business walks you through content ranging from feature stories to in-depth news analysis to obituaries, spanning from the 1850s to today.

    Exploring the people, trends, and pivotal events that have shaped business in America, Koehn has organized the book around a number of important themes.

    Absorbing and thought-provoking, The Story of American Business provides a much-needed glimpse into our past and a vital lens for understanding our future

  8. Business Wasn't Always the Villain

    An interview with Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian and editor of The Story of American Business.