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
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.
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
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
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