Nannerl Keohane’s writing speaks volumes from political science research and her past in academe and business. She has served as president of Duke University and Wellesley College and as a member of corporate boards at IBM, State Street Boston, and the Harvard Corporation. For the past six years Keohane has held the position of Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School and Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

Last year she wrote “Thinking About Leadership” (Princeton University Press), in which she wrote: “One of the skills most important for leaders is knowing how to get and use information.” And when Nan Keohane speaks about leadership, people tend to listen.

Keohane will present “How Can We Produce Good Leaders?” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Before Breakfast meeting on Wednesday June 15 at 7:30 a.m. Cost: $40. Call 609-924-1776 or visit

In 2005 the native southerner and her husband, Robert, also a noted political scientist, were recruited to Princeton by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of the Wilson School. Exalting a fundamental need for leaders to be good recruiters, Keohane says she was drawn by Slaughter’s depiction of Princeton and what she envisioned for the husband-and-wife academicians.

Keohane earned a bachelor’s in political science from Wellesley in 1961. On a Marshall scholarship she attended Oxford University, where she earned a combined bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy, politics, and economics. She returned to the U.S. for her doctorate, earning a Ph.D. in political science from Yale in 1967.

From 1967 to 1980 Keohane taught at Swarthmore and Stanford. She was “teaching about power and politics but never thinking about leadership as a central topic” she says. A career transition sparked her interest in the study of leadership.

“When I was invited to be president of Wellesley in 1981 I had to really think hard about it,” she says. “I never particularly wanted to be a high-level administrator but it was hard to turn down my alma mater. I was committed to seeing a woman’s college surviving and flourishing, and frankly, as a political scientist, I was very curious to know what it would be like to have power.”

Her thoughts echo those of Lou Gerstner, IBM’s former CEO. Keohane was on a small committee at IBM that offered Gerstner the job — which he at first turned down, thinking he lacked the technical know-how for a software giant. He later accepted the position with a master plan in mind.

“Shortly after he came to IBM he decided we would be committed to holding it together as a single global organization,” Keohane says. “His predecessor, John Fellows Akers, was going to break us up into a bunch of different styles. Gerstner thought that was the wrong approach and said ‘we will be a global leader in technology’ but we can’t do everything we’re doing now. I was impressed from the onset by what clarity of mind he had.”

The other part of his approach was downsizing. “We cut back on plants and products at a time when IBM had a history of job security,” Keohane says. “Gerstner had the courage to close down one of our factories. That was heresy from the point of view of IBM’s past, but it made an enormous amount of sense with IBM’s troubles of the late 1980s.”

Throughout Keohane’s book six prominent political figures are extracted as examples of high-level leadership: Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Queen Elizabeth I, and Franklin Roosevelt. As Keohane developed the book she had scores of famous leaders in mind but found herself taking examples from the six individuals again and again, as well as Machiavelli’s theories.

“I chose them because I assumed readers would be familiar with them,” Keohane says. “That in itself is a Machiavellian device — in ‘The Prince’ he chose four to five leaders that he keeps talking about because he knew his readers would be familiar with them. In each case I find their leadership fascinating.”

Parental influence is a partial inspiration for Keohane’s book and career. Her mother, Grace Overholser White, worked at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in North Carolina, where Keohane’s father, James, was a minister who taught theology and religion. Eventually her mother became St. Andrew’s dean. Keohane says her mom was gracious and nurturing while being strong and incisive at the helm.

“She supported students but she was also willing to make tough decisions to let people go or deal with students who were not performing,” she says. “She’s a good model of someone who combines traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine aspects of leadership.”

Keohane explores stereotypes of women as more sensitive, less competitive, and more collaborative than male leaders and the catch-22 associated with women in power. “Nurturing leaders in most professions are vulnerable to the charge of not being tough enough,” says Keohane. “Yet women who defy female stereotypes and behave aggressively are often condemned as pushy, abrasive, and unwomanly.”

Keohane says integrity represents a pinnacle in leadership, though it may not always be visible. “In my experience a significant part of leadership is playing a role,” she says. “You’ve got to be a good actor in several circumstances in order to be an effective leader.”

That doesn’t mean lying or hoodwinking people, she says. “It means knowing how to present your cause and knowing how to present yourself. And you’re sort of doing this self-consciously.”

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