Leading Without Permission: Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson

Michael Dearing

Frederick Douglass and Rachel Carson changed the world while they were alive. Their impact continues to reverberate into our own time, and their legacies will last centuries. 

Douglass’ passionate and personal work for the abolition of American slavery laid the groundwork for Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in the Confederate states. Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, helped launch the modern environmental movement and gave it a foundation in science, ethics, and political action. 

Neither leader came straight out of central casting. Political leaders in Douglass’ time were white men; he was an escaped African-American slave. In Carson’s day, few women earned PhD’s in scientific fields and among those who did, few crossed over into social and political change-making. Without the permission of powerful people around them -- in fact, each faced tremendous opposition from established actors and institutions -- these two Americans changed the world they lived in and the course of history.

How do you lead change when you don’t matter to the establishment? What are the key attributes of people who successfully pull this off? Let’s explore these questions as we unpack the stories of two exceptional Americans.

HBS Professor Nancy Koehn’s book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, is our focus for the class. We are lucky to have her join us to discuss the protagonists.

This class is only open to alums of General Management.