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

    by Nancy F. Koehn

    I am currently teaching a Harvard Business School MBA elective course course called "Power and Glory in Turbulent Times: The History of Leadership from Henry V to Steve Jobs." This class, which I developed two years ago, examines the effectiveness of leaders who lived and worked in moments of widespread disruption. The course aims to understand the choices they made; including the strategies they used, the values they lived by and the tradeoffs they accepted as they created significant power in companies, communities, and nations. It also focuses on the impact, immediate and long-term, that each of these individuals had, and how this impact was related to their animating missions. Particular attention is paid to what it means to lead forcefully in times of ongoing turmoil and to the relevant lessons that these leaders offer for our own moment, in the early 21st century. Finally, the course strives to draw credible inspiration from these individuals and the contexts in which they acted. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to examine the choices each leader made, the path he or she traveled, the values and objectives he or she nurtured, and the larger stage on which that person acted. This perspective provides a broad understanding of the long-term impact of leadership and innovation on business, government, and society. The leaders studied include Shakepeare's Henry V, Winston Churchill, Alexander Hamilton, Josiah Wedgwood, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Heinz, John D. Rockefeller, Milton Hershey, Madam Walker, Estee Lauder, Gloria Steinem, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rachel Carson, Gary Hirshberg, William Tyndale, Robert Moses, Bono, Howard Schultz, Oprah Winfrey, Katherine Graham, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ernest Shackleton.

    Keywords: History of Leadership; venture capital; private equity; Effective Leadership in Turbulent Times; Emotional Experience of Leaders; 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;