Building America’s Most Innovative Brands

One of Harvard Business School’s most-beloved classes, Entrepreneurial Leadership in Turbulent Times, is taught by Nancy Koehn, a historian who serves as HBS’s James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. She’s the author of a host of books on American entrepreneurship, leadership, and branding, including The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times and Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers’ Trust from Wedgwood to Dell. She’s written case studies on everyone from Marshall Field to John Mackey to U2’s Bono. Koehn spoke with’s Christine Lagorio about the country’s most ingenius brands, the challenges of Groupon-era consumer empowerment, and why Oprah is a great boss.

You’ve written about the leadership of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Heinz to Oprah Winfrey. What are some common misconceptions of what makes a great leader?

First, the idea that great leaders are born is a very powerful and common misconception. Leaders are made. Everyone is born with gifts, and has experiences along the way, and how they learn to use those gifts, and their experiences, is what makes them a great leader.

The second misconception is that leadership is mostly about charisma and how ones presents themselves. It is not primarily about a certain kind of style or presentation mode, and there is no single template for either of those things. What I’ve learned studying leaders past and present is that charisma isn’t actually charisma, it’s simply the ability to engage others, and doing the hard work it takes to do that, and being responsible by keeping the enabling energy toward that end. When leaders are able to pick out a point on the horizon, pick out people to help them do that, and keep the focus through the insanity of modern life, then you simply have someone who seems to have good style.

The third misconception is that leadership is something you learn how to do and then can put it on cruise control. That’s just not how it works. You look at Milton Hershey, the chocolate king: he failed something like 12 times, but he didn’t give up. He was down on his knees, shamed to his family—and then he discovered that milk chocolate was something people wanted. Leadership is as much about navigating through the valleys as it is looking out from the peaks. I think the best definition of leadership I’ve heard is from author David Foster Wallace’s book Up, Simba. “A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Are great leaders generally good bosses?

I think in general yes. They’re always very demanding. Think about Oprah Winfrey–she’s a tough boss. She knows delegation, but she knows when the Is aren’t dotted and Ts aren’t crossed. But she works people hard, and then lets them rest in months-long breaks, like athletes coming out of a hard competitive segment of their life. She’s good at understanding what peoples capacities are, and using them.

John Mackey of Whole Foods is a different kind of leader, though no less effective than Winfrey. He is very effective at staging out a vision and keeping the company and his top team focused on that vision. He’s great at delegating—he lets his store teams do their own structuring and hiring. He has an open-book policy, such that any employee can go into the break room and look in a black book and see any executive’s salary. That aspect of transparency creates the perception at Whole Foods that the company is an equitable place to work. Ultimately, Mackey has great capacity to know when it has to come from you as a boss, when the reins need to be pulled tight, and when to give your people lots of agency and room.

Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was hard to work for. He had loyal people, but he was prickly and cantankerous, demanding, had a rigid schedule. He was not a person of great suppleness or outward empathy, but no one would consider leaving his side.

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