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The Leadership Moment

The Leadership Moment — Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All; Three Rivers Press, 1998

by Michael Useem

Micheal Useem's The Leadership Moment — Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All is a collection of nine true stories used as case studies in the area of leadership. In these stories leaders are born and tested. The cases can be applied universally. Each account is about an individual who faced unusual circumstances and overcame them using critical leadership skills.

Each of the nine stories Useem describes depicts challenges that had to be thought through in order to have a successful outcome. The leaders in these stories displayed the courage needed to lead while facing challenges.

  • Roy Vagelos ends river blindness in Africa by committing millions of dollars to develop a drug needed only by people who can't afford it.

  • Wagner Dodge faces the decision of a lifetime by creating a fire in order to escape a fast-moving forest fire that overtakes his firefighting crew.

  • Eugene Kranz struggles to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home after an explosion rips through their spacecraft.

  • Arlene Blum organizes the first women's ascent of one of the world's most dangerous mountains.

  • Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leads his tattered troops into a pivotal Civil War battle at Little Round Top.

  • Clifton Wharton restructures a $50 billion pension system direly out of touch with its customers.

  • John Gutfreund loses Salomon Brothers when his inattention to a trading scandal almost topples the wall street giant.

  • Nancy Berry leads Women's World Banking in the fight against Third World Poverty.

  • Alfredo Cristiani transforms El Salvador's decade-long civil war into a negotiated settlement.

Useem defines leadership as the act of making a difference. He states "Leadership entails changing a field strategy or revamping a languishing organization. It 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, and the results tangible."

The section in the book called A Leaders Guide describes lessons learned from the nine stories. These lessons include motivating employees, aligning goals with the organization's mission, communicating expectations, producing tangible results, team performance, mid-year reviews, consultation with employees, and encouraging employees. Useem examines each story and develops the following key lessons for leaders to take heed of:

  • Clearheaded thinking about why you have been appointed to an office and what those who have placed you there expect of you is a prerequisite to clear-minded, if not predictable, decision making.

  • If your organization is facing a period of uncertainty, change, or stress, now is the time to build strong culture with good lines of interior communication, mutual understanding, and shared obligation. A clear sense of common purpose and a well-formed camaraderie are essential ingredients to ensure that your team, your organization, or your company will perform to its utmost when it is most needed.

  • Expecting high performance is prerequisite to its achievement among those who work with you. Your high standards and optimistic anticipations will not guarantee a favorable outcome, but their absence will assuredly create the opposite.

  • Developing teams, and teams of teams, through training and exercise can create the implicit understandings that make for fast and accurate decision making when the teams are under duress but must act.

  • A new position of leadership will engender the experience you lack on arrival, and seeking feedback on your performance in the position will ensure that you take advantage of the experience.

  • Authorities systems help ensure that our decisions contribute to an organization's mission, but they can also get in the way. Recognizing when autonomous action is the right course-and learning to act on that recognition-can be essential, both for yourself and for those on whom you depend.

  • Buy-in by all those affected by an organization's change hastens its achievement. Consultation with them, engagement of them, and appeals to them are the critical steps for building acceptance of the change.

  • Such leadership skills as persuasive speaking, persistence in achieving one's agendas, and personal confidence can be developed in office; much of leadership is a learned capacity that need not be limited by birthright or prior experience.

Linking Performance Management and Leadership

Leaders play a vital role in the success of performance management. In order to have successful performance management outcomes, leaders should incorporate the lesson's Useem provides. Making decisions that will help employees reach organizational goals involves giving employees the opportunity to participate in developing their performance plans. Great teams have great team leaders. It is important to embrace team spirit and to communicate with the staff, so that it is clear what the mission is and how it will get accomplished. Recognizing and rewarding good performance builds relationships between the supervisor and employees, which results in good teams willing to follow and complete the mission.

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