A deep and abiding sense of courage is a quality that separates good leaders from great ones. Research shows that professionals who demonstrate courage in the workplace not only perform better, but influence their peers to act with bravery and drive organizational success.

Throughout history, there have been scores of iconic individuals who exemplify the characteristics that define courageous leadership, such as resilience, commitment to purpose, and authenticity.

In her book, Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders, Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn chronicles the stories of five such individuals, whose attitudes and actions in the face of crisis made a positive difference in the world.

“I chose these people—or perhaps they chose me—because they’ve all been capable of two things,” Koehn says. “First, leading from within—developing themselves into a person of greater impact, strength, and courage. Secondly, working from that inner base and moving the boulder of goodness forward.”

If you want to enhance your leadership capabilities and advance your career, here are three of the historical figures presented in Koehn's book, who each offer lessons you can use to guide yourself and others through challenging times.

Examples of Iconic Courageous Leaders

1. Ernest Shackleton, Polar Explorer


In early 1915, during an expedition to the South Pole, explorer Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew encountered crisis when their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in pack ice while sailing along the coast of Antarctica. When, after several days, no signs of an opening in the ice appeared, the men prepared to spend the next six months aboard the boat while they waited for the frozen mass encasing it to thaw.

Tensions escalated under these circumstances, as crew members had fewer duties aboard the incapacitated vessel and were forced to find other ways to occupy their time.

Shackleton, Koehn says, understood that this kind of discontent could quickly contaminate morale, resulting in dire consequences for their safety and the expedition itself. In an effort to boost cohesion and goodwill, Shackleton encouraged the team to socialize after dinner, and organized group activities on the ice, including a waltzing contest and dog races.

“He was constantly thinking about how to keep his men engaged, focused on the positives, and working together,” Koehn says. “Some of this was an attempt to keep their days filled. But most of it was about something even more important. It was about what Shackleton referred to as creating ‘mental medicine’—things he could do, or order his men to do, that would make them feel like they were doing productive, enjoyable, upward-looking things with their time and abilities.”

According to Koehn, Shackleton’s focus on fostering camaraderie by keeping them engaged and boosting morale amid hardship imparts a key leadership lesson.

“Mental medicine—the energy, outlook, engagement, and cohesion of your team—is at least and, perhaps, more valuable than any other resource that a leader has,” she says. “In Shackleton’s case, it was more valuable than the food supply. It was more important to his team’s survival and success than the temperatures on the ice and the oncoming specter of the Antarctic winter.”

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2. Rachel Carson, Environmental Crusader


In the early 1960s, marine biologist and author Rachel Carson was working to overcome immense personal and professional challenges. On top of writing what would ultimately become Silent Spring, her watershed book exposing the dangers of synthetic pesticides and their impact on the environment, Carson was fighting a battle on a whole other front: cancer.

“Carson’s moment of forging—her crucible—stretched out for more than two years,” Koehn writes. “This long, slow burn demanded, again and again, that she find her way back from the precipice of despair and then recommit to her mission. Her ability to stay the course, finish her book, and exert enormous impact was fueled by her unrelenting dedication to a mighty cause.”

Despite being plagued by a series of health complications that took great physical and emotional tolls, Carson remained staunchly committed to her mission, as Koehn describes it, “to bring the wonders of the natural world to the public and to spotlight the responsibility we each have to protect the earth that sustains all life.”

Koehn notes that unlike many other prominent leaders throughout history, known for their charisma and aggressiveness, Carson was shy and retiring—an introvert, whose leadership approach was characterized by her quiet determination, resilience, and stalwart commitment to doing purpose-driven work.

“She did more than simply identify critical problems and potential solutions,” Koehn writes. “She also called others to their stronger selves, pointing them to a path of citizen awareness and action paved with humility and wisdom. She did all this with care, courage, dedication, and grace. Her life and work are indisputable proof of the enormous positive difference one person can make.”

3. Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist


Like Carson, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was driven by a deep sense of mission. After escaping from slavery in 1838, he used his experience in bondage to become a leader in the antislavery movement and a champion of black freedom.

In her book, Koehn notes Douglass realized that in order to enact large-scale change, he had to be self-committed and create his own internal moral, intellectual, and emotional infrastructure—a framework for both understanding the power of slavery and how to consistently and effectively combat it. Douglass devoted a great deal of effort to building this framework within himself. He then used it to develop an effective leadership style.

“This was thorny, complicated work,” Koehn writes. “We can imagine it as a series of conversations he had with himself as he considered how he might affect broader events. These internal discussions formed the cornerstone of Douglass’s leadership, helping him make day-to-day choices, communicate his mission, and navigate through moments of doubt and despair. All individuals who aspire to lead effectively must build their own foundation.”

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Throughout his life, Douglass used his perspective and personal experiences as tools in the fight for societal change. He also used his writing and public speaking to inspire others to stand with him. Douglass recognized that making a significant impact required motivating and empowering his fellow citizens, and used his communication prowess to achieve that objective.

“We long for a leader like Frederick Douglass, who apprehended that the country could only achieve its full potential when Americans faced and righted a critical wrong,” Koehn writes. “It’s important to remember that the black abolitionist led from the lecture hall and the newspaper as much—or more—than he did from the offices of elite politicians. He believed that positive change began with ordinary citizens, and that his work as a leader was to help them affect the individuals who governed them.”

Related: Authentic Leadership: What It Is & Why It's Important

Learning to Lead with Courage

Whether you’re a mid-career professional or an emerging senior leader, the stories of these iconic individuals impart important, real-life lessons you can apply to your own leadership journey. By fostering engagement and cohesion amongst your team, finding a purpose that ignites your passion, and developing a leadership approach that informs how you inspire and mobilize others, you can become a more courageous leader and take your career to the next level.

Do you want to improve your leadership capabilities? Download our e-book on how to become a more effective leader or take our free, 35-minute leadership lesson about legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton, and discover how you can develop the skills to lead with courage and conviction.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.