An interview with Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All

1. In your book, The Leadership Moment, you’ve assembled a diverse group of people – from the worlds of science, the military, banking, politics and business. When putting your list together, what characteristics were you looking for?

One of the most effective ways for developing your own leadership potential is by watching what others have done when their own leadership was on the line. The book offers nine accounts of leaders at such moments. Each chapter is shaped around the actions of one person facing circumstances that tested leadership to its utmost. Individually, I wanted each account to offer a distinct set of lessons that can be remembered and used in everyday management, whether in a company or community. Collectively, the nine accounts are intended to map a broad leadership terrain, from strategic vision and persuasive communication to team building and fact action

My choices:

  • Merck’s Roy Vagelos committing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and distribute a drug needed only by people who can’t afford it.
  • Eugene Kranz making split second decisions as he struggles to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home after an explosion rips through their spacecraft.
  • Arlene Blum organizing the first women’s ascent of the Himalayan peak of Annapurna, one of the world’s most dangerous mountains.
  • Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leading his tattered troops into a pivotal battle at Little Round Top, on the killing fields of Gettysburg.
  • John Gutfreund losing Salomon Brothers when his inattention to a trading scandal almost topples the Wall Street giant.
  • Clifton Wharton restructuring a $50 billion pension system direly out of touch with its competition and its customers.
  • Nancy Barry leaving a powerful position at the World Bank so that she can lead Women’s World Banking in its fight against Third World poverty.
  • Wagner Dodge facing the decisions of a lifetime as a fast-moving forest fire is about to overtake him and his crew of fifteen smokejumpers.
  • Alfredo Cristiani transforming El Salvador’s decade-long civil war into a negotiated settlement.

2. Your book shows that leadership is dramatized in the crucial moment – that brief period of time when the right decision must be made and executed. What role does preparation play in the success or failure of crunch-time decisions?

Consider the moment facing Eugene Kranz, flight director for Apollo 13, when astronaut James Lovell reported, "Houston, we’ve had a problem." A NASA technician working with Kranz was horrified by what he saw on his computer console and warns, "We got more than a problem." One of the spaceship’s two oxygen tanks had exploded, and within several hours the three astronauts would be without oxygen or power.

Mastering this potentially catastrophic moment required more than management. It demanded steely determination among hundreds of engineers and managers who somehow had to stretch remaining resources, barely enough for two men for two days, to sustain three men for four days. And it required that they work flawlessly together, trusting and building upon one another’s split-second decisions. Eugene Kranz had created such capacities long before hearing James Lovell’s alarm from the heavens. Kranz had insisted that all of those involved in his missions acquire a collective capacity to make, in his words, "100 percent correct decisions in extremely short periods of time." He had deemed it his duty to anticipate the future, and when his organization faced its ultimate test, his team was well in place to ensure that failure would indeed not be the option.

3. What’s the difference between personal leadership and organizational leadership?

Managers are vested with areas of authority from the day they arrive: they can revise budgets, assign people, and give raises. But these vested powers of office are only a platform to build on. Leadership is rising above those vested powers in both personal and organizational ways, leveraging what you are given to achieve far more.

The personal is what we usually mean by leadership: the force of character, the power of persuasion. The organizational is what we often fail to appreciate at first but almost always find close behind: the ability to meld a team and build an organization.

Wagner Dodge parachuted with a group of firefighters into a Montana gulch in what began as a routine mission. Even when the fire suddenly surged out of control, Dodge swiftly moved his men toward safety – a fuel-free zone that would have saved their lives. But when Dodge attempted to move them into the secure zone, they refused to follow, convinced he had panicked. He had not, and the farsightedness would have saved their lives, but following its own rules, the Forest Service has assigned smokejumpers to Dodge’s crew who had never worked with him before. When they should have listened to him, their unfamiliarity with him sent them scattering in other, fatal directions. Wagner Dodge had invented a life-saving solution, but his organization prevented him from leading when it really counted.