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In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, many of us can’t help but wonder what we would have done had we faced the unimaginable moment of truth that so many victims and survivors must have faced. Would we have found the strength to assess the situation, make life and death decisions, and help others?

In looking for answers, I found myself referring back to Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment, and thinking about his stories of leaders in tough, even life-threatening situations and the decisions they make. Although the book is now several years old, I decided to pull my copy from the bookshelf and revisit some of the lessons that Useem describes. Today they seem very relevant.

Useem, a professor at the Wharton School and director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management, believes that one of the best ways to develop your own leadership potential is to study what others have done when their leadership was confronted by critical challenges. His book offers nine accounts of leaders at such moments, with distinct lessons and implications woven throughout each account. Useem is a great storyteller, and the accounts have such a fine sense of narrative and story development that the book reads like an adventure novel. If only he would give lessons in story development to other business authors!

The nine “leadership moments” he profiles are:

      Merck's Roy Vagelos committing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and distribute a drug to cure river blindness, even though the people who needed it had no hope of paying for it.

      Smokejumper Wagner Dodge leading a crew of 15 in the face of a fast-moving forest fire that might kill them.

      Eugene Kranz getting the Apollo 13 astronauts back to earth after a disastrous explosion on the spacecraft.

      Arlene Blum leading the first women's ascent of the dangerous Annapurna peak in the Himalayas.

      The Civil War commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain facing the horrors of Gettysburg, and leading his battered troops into battle at Little Round Top.

      John Gutfreund losing Salomon Brothers after his inattention to a trading scandal almost fells the firm.

      Clifton Wharton restructuring TIAA-CREF, a $50 billion pension system that had been very out of synch with its competition and its customers.

      Nancy Barry leaving a powerful position at the World Bank so she could lead Women's World Banking in its fight against Third World poverty.

      Alfredo Cristiani guiding El Salvador out of a long and destructive civil war and into a negotiated settlement.

In presenting successes and failures, the book provides some great examples of what to do, and what not to do. I was able to learn as much, if not more, from the failures of leadership than I was from the cases where everything worked out well. Useem says, “By watching those who lead the way—as well as those who go astray—we can see what works and what fails, what hastens our cause or subverts our purpose.”

He summarizes the lessons drawn from each narrative in the final chapter, “A Leader’s Guide.” The sheer volume of lessons in this chapter (around 40) could overwhelm some readers. But, for those who prefer succinct bulleted lists, Useem also includes a useful short-list of leadership principles extracted from the nine leadership accounts: know yourself, explain yourself, expect much, gain commitment, build now, prepare yourself, move fast, find yourself, and remain steadfast.

However, I don’t think this book is really about lists and prescriptions. Its strength lies in the power of storytelling, and the manner in which these real-life accounts are imprinted into the reader’s subconscious. After all, it’s much easier to remember a well-told story than to recall a bullet point from a long list.

Another strength of the book is that Useem focuses on the basis of the decision-making process, rather than only on the net effect. The reader thus understands the factors leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of major leadership decisions. This understanding provides tangible tools to apply in team and organizational settings. He also presents a wide and diverse set of circumstances including leadership by men, women, minorities, international figures, and leadership occurring in both corporate and non-corporate settings.

Though the leadership moments he analyses are quite divergent, and spread out over the past 130+ years, they create a very comprehensive look at the broad terrain of leadership. According to Useem, “Leadership requires us to make an active choice among plausible alternatives, and it depends on bringing others along, on mobilizing them to get the job done. Leadership is at its best when the vision is strategic, the voice persuasive, the results tangible. At the end of the day, leadership is what we've left behind that has made a real difference for the people and visions we value.”

This compelling and gripping book does a wonderful job of bringing those leadership lessons home.

Beth Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine and a big fan of books that enthrall while they teach. Send recommendations for her next book review to beth@linezine.com.

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