The Leadership Moment Summary and Review

by Michael Useem
 Is The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem on your reading list? Discover the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.
Reflect on your work and community experiences: do you recall a specific time where you or someone else took the lead on an important decision? These types of leadership moments can teach us something important about acting like a leader. Through analysis of the experiences of other leaders’ actions in these moments, you can ask yourself what lessons are taught, and therefore can better anticipate how to act when facing a similar challenge. Over the course of this book summary, we will evaluate nine varying situations where a single leader is faced with a challenge. Stories of business leaders, astronauts, leaders of NGOs, civil war generals, and mountain climbers provide various types of experiences and challenges. These stories will give us insight into tackling decision-making in our fluctuating world, and how we can use these insights when facing our own leadership moments.  In this summary of The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem, you’ll discover
  • How the financial firm Salomon Inc. almost ended as a result of inaction;
  • That lacking communication can be literally fatal; and
  • What an astronaut can teach us about precise and quick decision-making.

The Leadership Moment Key Idea #1: Grow your leadership skills by seeking out new challenges. 

Do you seek out new challenges? That’s great! Taking on new responsibilities can be stressful, and can sometimes become nightmarish. But, chasing new challenges is a sure way to gain new skills and experience, which will further prepare you for future challenges.  Clifton Wharton, the former US Deputy Secretary, saw challenging assignment as an opportunity to improve his skill set and to increase his practical knowledge. As a development economist, Wharton faced his first sizeable challenge when he was elected to be the president of Michigan State University.  Wharton spent eight years there, and in this time, he was successful in leading and administrating the huge campus and compex university systems. Wharton was then invited to head the State University of New York, which he accepted.  The administration of The State University of New York was approximately ten times larger than that of Michigan State, and the control of this system was extremely centralized. But, since Wharton had experience at Michigan State and as a board member of large corporations, including Ford Motor Co., he understood that even the largest enterprises can be restructured for the better. Wharton was able to use lessons from previous challenges to aid his complete restructuring and improvement of New York State.  These experiences culminated when Wharton accepted a job offer from the Teachers Insurance and Annuities Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), which is the biggest non-government retirement provider for college and university professors. From retirement plans to life insurance, the TIAA-CREF handles a lot. Many clients of the TIAA-CREF were becoming frustrated with the limited investment options and their lack of control over their retirement funds. The organization was in dire need of a complete restructure when they offered Wharton a job.  Wharton took office in 1987 and immediately began to modernize the state system. He started by creating three top management teams whose job was to steer the entire enterprise. He also introduced greater autonomy and accountability within the customer service department. Following these updates, clients could access diverse investment options, more flexibility in transferring their funds, and improved counseling when it comes to making decisions about their retirement.  Immersing yourself in your role and all the learning opportunities it offers will give you the tools to succeed in positions with more responsibility in the future. 

The Leadership Moment Key Idea #2: Adhere to your own vision and values. 

When you’re looking for a new job, what types of positions catch your eye? Likely, you’re drawn to companies that share a similar vision as your own. Sharing goals for the future with the organization you work for and having a deep understanding of your own values leads to outstanding leadership. Let’s look at Nancy Barry’s career as an example.  Nancy Barry worked as a senior official at the World Bank and was beginning to doubt if their aid projects aimed at developing countries were actually succeeding or not. When evaluating this, Barry envisioned an alternative option: using the process of microfinancing to provide financial and educational services to low-income groups to help them provide for themselves. The World Bank didn’t share this vision on how to alleviate poverty and hardship, but the Women’s World Banking (WWB) did. Barry ended up leaving the World Bank in favor of a job at the WWB.  The WWB, who were offering financial tools and resources to women in developing countries so they can become self-sufficient, needed Barry’s expertise on the topic as much as she needed their platform to realize her own vision. While she was at the World Bank, Barry worked to develop a network with leading financiers. This work allowed Barry to foster valuable relationships with established institutions for the WWB. Barry’s experience with the World Bank helped drive the decentralization and the expansion of the WWB, which turned around and helped microfinance millions of women in need. Similarly, Roy Vagelos also had a clear set of goals -- to cure a waterborne parasitic infection called river blindness in Africa. Vagelos developed a drug called Mectizan which not only cured river blindness, but helped to prevent the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, the cost of manufacturing this drug was high, but Vagelos didn’t slow down. He embodied his company’s values and “put patients before profits.” 

The Leadership Moment Key Idea #3: When time is tight, remain calm and focused to make the right decision.

Sometimes, leaders find themselves in life-and-death situations where they must make the right choice to avoid devastating consequences. An example of this type of leader would be Eugene Kranz, who was the flight director of the Apollo 13 lunar mission. His leadership showed that quick decisions do not need to be poor decisions.  The spacecraft Odyssey suffered an in-flight explosion in 1970. This explosion was a catastrophe because air pressure, electricity, and fuel cells were all being lost at an alarming rate. If the astronauts intended to survive, they would need to return to Earth as soon as possible. This situation required rapid action and decision-making, as the team only had a few minutes to run from the command module to the lunar excursion module after the explosion.  In this mad dash, Kranz was responsible for uncovering the facts of the situation and making the correct calls. Kranz had no room to make errors, since a single wrong decision could have sent the spacecraft shooting in the incorrect direction, never to return to Earth. He didn’t have all the time in the world to make these decisions, either. Kranz remained composed and concentrated, and gathered enough pertinent information to make the correct decisions at every turn. He successfully got his team home safely.  Contrastingly to Kranz, John Gutfreund had a leadership career that was marked by his failure to act during an urgent situation. Gutfreund was the chairman and CEO of investment bank Salomon Inc. in 1991. He became aware of the excessive trading of one of their bond traders, named Paul Mozer. The US Treasury does not accept bids larger than 35 percent of an auction total for a government bond, but Mozer was bidding under multiple different names on multiple occasions in order to get around this legal percentage.  So how did Gutfreund respond to this discovery? Well, he didn’t. Mozer was not asked to leave the company, and his behavior was neither internally investigated nor reported to the authorities until three months down the road. Not only did this significant delay outrage the public, but it almost spelled the end for Salomon, Inc. The company was required to pay an enormous settlement of $290 million to federal regulators.  Their reputation was permanently smeared, and their stock began to free fall. Following this scandal, other companies were not willing to work with Salomon, Inc. This nightmare could have been avoided if Gutfreund had simply acted, instead of sitting back and brushing it under the rug.  In order to act fast, you must have a fast team. In the next section of this summary, let’s look at how strong leaders mobilize their teams. 

The Leadership Moment Key Idea #4: Disastrous consequences arise when leadership does not communicate. 

Wagner Dodge was a chief of a 15-man crew of firefighters in 1994. One day, a forest fire called the tam to Mann Gulch, a rugged area in the middle of Montana. Though Dodge had a range of experience with forest fires, leading a team brought different challenges.  Dodge, as a man of few words, infrequently offered his opinion on various situations. He was also not strong in expressing or explaining his decisions to his team. Unfortunately, Dodge’s lack of communication skills had fatal consequences at the Mann Gulch forest fire. Right when Dodge and his team arrived and began heading for the mouth of the gorge that stood between the river and the fire, Dodge retreated to the landing area without communicating why or what he was doing. His team had no clue why he had left, and it turned out he was simply returning to retrieve some forgotten food.  When Dodge returned, the entire team continues forward. However, they discovered that a new fire had begun to close off their escape route. Dodge was alarmed by the rapid rate at which the fire was spreading and ordered his men to drop their equipment and reverse their course. He wanted his men to be able to get away from it as fast as possible, but he didn’t express this to his crew.  As the forest fire began to outrun them, Dodge lit a backfire to prevent the real fire from further advancing. He took shelter behind this fire and urged his crew to do the same. But due to his previous lack of communication, his team did not trust in his ability to make the right decisions, and decided to go their own way.  His team abandoned Dodge at the moment he most needed them to trust him. All 14 members of the crew tragically lost their lives that day. This spotlights the importance of communication and explaining your decisions to your team. 

The Leadership Moment Key Idea #5: Win your team’s support by listening to them and by keeping them involved in your decision making. 

In 1863, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the commander of the 20th Regiment Infantry, Maine volunteers, defended and secured a crucial strategic point called Little Round Top at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Without his top-performing army, this would have been impossible. The fact that a third of Chamberlain’s army were former mutineers that had recently been decommissioned from the 2nd Regiment of Maine makes you think that he wouldn’t have a cohesive force to lead. However, Chamberlain successfully gained the full cooperation of these mutineers, by giving them what they needed from him: someone to voice their grievances to.  He spent time listening to their stories and worked to show his understanding. When it came time to ask them for their support against the upcoming clash with the Confederates, all of the mutineers immediately bought in. Both his compassion and his powerful speech about the Union’s goal to free all people, regardless of their background, caused the mutineers to follow Chamberlain into battle. The mutineers defeated the Confederates, and this moment was yet another time in history that simply gaining support was the deciding factor between a win and a loss.  Reaching consensus among your team is another way to secure their support before executing a decision. Arlene Blum knew this well. Blum led a team of all-female mountaineers to climb Annapurna, a mountain in Nepal. Due to the extreme conditions, there might only be one chance to reach the summit.  Blum was sure to consult her team as they neared the peak, and it became clear that not all of the team members could ascend the summit at once. All members of the team agreed that safety was their primary concern, and supported Blum’s plan to have four people attempt the summit at first. Two group members were accompanied by two local guides, and all four individuals reached the summit. This meant that the rest of the team was unable to see the peak, but this didn’t matter.  Because Blum communicated with her team prior, all members were supportive of those who were able to make the journey to the summit. When the day ends, a supportive and powerful team feeling is the best accomplishment. 

In Review: The Leadership Moment Book Summary

The key message in this book: Stories about strong leaders contain many lessons about the power of learning, vision, decision-making, communication, and compassion. If you comprise your leadership style of these factors, you will be able to guide your team to a successful performance that will make all members proud.  Actionable advice: Think about what type of leader you are. Though there are many types of leadership styles, a single style is not effective in every situation. Knowing what leadership styles are available to use helps you make the proper choice. From autocratic leadership where decisions are made quickly without consultation, to democratic leadership where opinions matter, to laissez-faire leadership where the team takes the lead, different styles are appropriate for different situations. Think through your situation and think about which one will be most effective for you.