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. Overview

    My research focuses on effective leadership and how leaders craft lives of purpose, worth and impact. Using the lens of history, my work examines how individual leaders from business, government and other walks of life accomplish important missions; navigate failure, calamity and great turbulence; use their emotional intelligence to help them do all this; and inspire others to be better than they would otherwise have been. I am particularly interested in how leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackleton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Howard Schultz and Rachel Carson consciously learn, grow and change as they lead. All of my research and teaching, including my HBS course on the history of leadership, is concerned with these issues.

    Keywords: Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times; venture capital; private equity; Emotional Experience of Leaders; History of Leadership; Leadership; Entrepreneurship; History; Service Industry; Media and Broadcasting Industry; Health Industry; Entertainment and Recreation Industry; Beauty and Cosmetics Industry; Fashion Industry; Food and Beverage Industry; Advertising Industry; United States; Europe;

  2. Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times

    Nancy F. Koehn's research examines effective leadership in turbulent times through the lens of history.  Her latest book, The Story of American Business:  From the Pages of the New York Times (2009), sketches some of the most important people, events and larger forces from the past 150 years of U.S. business history.  She is the author of 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 six other books. She is currently working on book about the most important lessons from leaders through history, including Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Shackelton. Rachel Carson, and Frederick Douglass.  She has recently written numerous articles about these individuals and the lessons they offer for leaders today.  In 2011, she completed a film about Abraham Lincoln's relevance today titled, "Lincoln's Journey:  Lessons for Leadership."

    Keywords: Emotional Experience of Leaders; History of Leadership; Effective Leadership in Turbulaent Times; Leadership; Entrepreneurship; History; Service Industry; Media and Broadcasting Industry; Health Industry; Entertainment and Recreation Industry; Beauty and Cosmetics Industry; Fashion Industry; Food and Beverage Industry; Advertising Industry; United States; Europe;