Guest Post: How to survive the storm

January 15, 2009, 10:29 PM UTC

by Nancy Koehn, Professor, Harvard Business School

Are you in the center of the storm?

I teach business history and leadership at Harvard Business School and have been fascinated lately by the notion of powerful people getting a grip by stepping back and letting go.

The idea is counter-intuitive. But it works, particularly in today’s environment of great turmoil and uncertainty. Seeing the forest for the trees is critical. Consider these lessons in leadership present and past:

For many years, while Bill Gates was running Microsoft , he took biannual  “reading weeks.” He spent these periods alone in a cabin, reading, thinking and considering the larger landscape of technological and economic change. Gates believed that he and his company benefited from the boss’s time away. Now that he’s pulled away from Microsoft for good and is focusing on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has time for reading and thinking baked into his new job.

Procter & Gamble’s A. G. Lafley, a CEO who is weathering the storm better than most, has talked about the value of meditation. In a 2006 Fortune interview, he told Pattie Sellers: “I’ve tried to teach myself to meditate. When I travel, which is 60 percent of the time, I find that meditating for five, ten, or 15 minutes in a hotel room at night can be as good as a workout. Generally, I think I know myself so much better than I used to. And that has helped me stay calm and cool under fire.”

Do you know how 82-year-old Joe Paterno  coached Penn State to an 11-1 record and all the way to the Rose Bowl this past season? By leading the Nittany Lions from the press box high above the playing field. “I am not sure that’s not the best place for a head coach,” Paterno told the press, noting that the elevation gave him a superior view. More than that, leaders like Paterno who step away give their teams space to do their jobs. Micromanaging is practically impossible from a distance, and that can pay off.

And then there’s Abraham Lincoln. During the chaos of the Civil War, he sought space by reading history and turning to Shakespeare. He preferred tragedies like Macbeth and Hamlet. Lincoln devoted many evening and early morning hours to reading the Bard’s plays, often memorizing long passages. Reading and going to theater helped sustain his emotional balance. Said one of Lincoln’s assistants, William Stoddard, “The drama of drawing his mind into other channels of thought afforded him the most entire relief.”

The common thread: a conscious effort to detach oneself in order to see the big picture. Leaders need that perspective to see the larger context in order to chart a course for their people—and to give themselves a sense of purpose. Lincoln, for one, used his reading of U.S. history and Shakespeare’s tragedies to help him discern the war’s significance and his role on the larger stage. This, in turn, fed his courage and will to see the crisis through.

Stepping out of the chaos is difficult. Especially now as companies are imploding, entire sectors of the economy are dying, and demands for time and energy are intense. Blizzards of emails on our BlackBerries blind us even more. But it is precisely at these moments that seeing the larger landscape is key. Barack Obama, who is taking office with an enormous weight of issues and expectations on his shoulders, understands this. He’s been reading Lincoln. “There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful,” he said in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Obama is also hooked on his exercise regime. “He does it every day like clockwork,” Marty Nesbitt, one of his close friends from Chicago, told the press. Those 90 minutes in the gym each morning put the outside world on hold. If you don’t understand the essence of effective leadership, you might wonder how America’s new President can keep it up. I hope he does. Stepping away for an hour and a half each day could be his survival formula.

Nancy F. Koehn, an authority on business history, is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is currently working on a book about the most important leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln and another on social entrepreneurs.