Leadership and Change
Mission Critical: 15 Principles to Help Leaders Meet Their Toughest ChallengesPublished: July 01, 2011
In his new book, The Leader's Checklist, Wharton management professor Michael Useempresents a collection of 15 principles that can help leaders navigate successfully through even the most difficult circumstances. Using such milestone events as the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners in 2010, the collapse of AIG in 2008 and the surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox in 1865, Useem illustrates the difference between good and bad leadership, and how to achieve one's own personal leadership success. The Leader's Checklist is the first ebook published by Wharton Digital Press.
Useem, who is director of Wharton's Center for Leadership and Change Management, talked with Knowledge@Wharton about his book. Also included is a video conversation between Useem and Laurence Golborne, Chilé's mining minister, who is a speaker at this year's Leadership Conference 2011 titled, "Leading in a Reset Economy and Uncertain World."
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge@Wharton: Mike, you have written several books on leadership. What was the inspiration for this particular one?
Michael Useem: I became convinced that everybody needs a leader's checklist by virtue of watching leaders in action who didn't have it. They made -- call it "an unforced error," or sometimes a couple of unforced errors. Simply having a piece of paper that says, "Don't forget to honor the room," or "Don't forget to talk about a company strategy," would help people avoid these kinds of mistakes. It really goes back to Atul Gawande's great argument in The Checklist Manifesto. Most people in surgery and most pilots don't make errors. But when they do make an error, it has significant implications. A checklist helps prevent such a mistake.
Knowledge@Wharton: It's catastrophic.
Useem:Yes, catastrophic. Mission critical. And so for that reason, the FAA and military aviation authorities many years ago imposed the Aviator's Checklist. Hospitals in the U.S. and abroad have begun to impose the Surgical Checklist, very similar in import. Because even surgeons -- smart, well-trained, they have done a thousand procedures of a given kind -- they still once in a while do make an error, given all the complexity, stress and fast-moving circumstances they operate under. In surgery, you don't want that to happen. And by implication, you don't want that to happen to a leader who is trying to help everybody understand where the company is going to go in the coming 12 months but forgets to hit all those items on the checklist.
Knowledge@Wharton: You pick out the Chilean mining disaster and rescue, the near collapse of AIG and the ceremonial surrender of the Confederate Army during the Civil War as your three main examples to kick you off. Very briefly, why did you pick those three?
Useem: I think it's very important for people to appreciate why a given item is on the checklist, and to see where it is illustrated by somebody's leadership moment. Or not illustrated, as in the case of AIG. By seeing that, I think we hang on to these ideas. That becomes critical in a leader's checklist, as opposed to an aviator's checklist, in the sense that with a pilot, you can't take off if you don't go through a checklist in modern aircraft. Literally, the aircraft won't go forward if you haven't hit the buttons on the electronic panel.
But in leadership, we have no FAA equivalent. We've got to walk around with this set of ideas ourselves. And my own experience is that people remember, hang on to and are ready to use some of the ideas of the checklist if those ideas are embedded in something very graphic, something very memorable, something very powerful. And just to recall that AIG went belly up back on September 16, 2008, partly because the people who led that firm didn't have a full checklist. That serves as a reminder.
Knowledge@Wharton: So these three examples correlate to specific items on your checklist?
Useem: Yes. At the outset of the book, I identify 12 principles that are pretty obvious as soon as I report them. You've got to have a vision, a strategy, honor the room, say it so it sticks, and so forth. But then I offer arguments to the reader that there are three other principles that are very important, and they don't necessarily stem from some of the research or writings that I review earlier on.
So in the case of AIG, leadership principles were not followed by the CEO of AIG, or by the managing director of AIGFP, the financial products group that led to AIG's downfall. Keep in mind that the leader's calling is to help people stay confident without being over-confident, to be realistic, to guard against hubris. What happened in the case of AIGFP is it began to insure all these fancy products on the premise that AIG, the parent, would keep its Triple-A Standard & Poor's credit rating. That was vital to the way that AIG operated. But credit agencies do have a habit of down-grading organizations.
Think AIG, think Greece at the moment. Neither the AIGFP managing director nor Martin Sullivan, who was AIG's CEO at the time, really had a rainy-day scenario. There were plenty of signs that down-grading was possible after Bear Sterns. It's in the spring of 2008 that agencies -- in part because they're under a lot of criticism -- are beginning to down-grade many companies. But AIG's top people evidently had no worst-case scenario. "Suppose we get down-graded?" And it was that down-grading that put AIG under.
Knowledge@Wharton: In terms of the Chilean Mining Minister, what one principle or two principles do you think were demonstrated in that rescue?
Useem: There were many actions that Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne took between August and October of 2010 to bring the 33 trapped miners to the surface. One factor, though, in particular that I emphasize is that -- given his background in retail, not mining -- he didn't bring any technical knowledge of how to mine, let alone how to rescue miners 2,000 feet below. He not only had to get the miners out -- that was a huge engineering challenge -- he also had to manage relations with the government. There were 2,000 full-time reporters on site with plenty of time to find Golborne and ask him questions. And he had 33 families who had a very strong point of view on just about everything he was doing.
So to his credit, he pulled together a team, an extremely diverse team. Leadership is both an individual and a team sport. You can't lead if you don't have a good and diverse team. That was graphically evident back in the Atacama Desert last summer and fall.