High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Tips for decisive leadership in times of crisis – by Wharton Professor Michael Useem

By Michael Useem (reprinted from Under30CEO).

Imagine yourself in this position: Less than five months ago, you were summoned from the private sector to join a newly formed national government. Your background is in retail; now you are heading up the nation’s mining industry. You are abroad on a state visit, still working to come up to speed, when word reaches you from your home office that there has been a mining disaster — a cave-in deep below, death toll unknown, nearly three dozen missing.

Or envision this: For decades, your financial services firm has sailed along. Not only have revenues soared; your company has also earned a treasured AAA credit rating while creating an extraordinary wealth engine: a little giant of a division that insures against debt defaults, including subprime mortgages. Continuing prosperity seems predictable, but suddenly the market implodes. Subprime mortgages turn noxious. Lehman Brothers goes under. Your AAA rating slips to AA, then A-; and with the downgrades, you have to post billions of dollars in collateral that you simply do not have. This boat is sailing straight toward a roaring waterfall, and you are standing at the helm.

Or this one: The enemy has surrendered after a four-year conflict that has left more than half a million dead, and your army commander has assigned you to arrange one of the war’s crowning moments, the formal surrender of the enemy’s most venerated army. The tone, the texture of the ceremony, the formalities of receiving the enemy — they are entirely for you to craft.


These are not, of course, hypothetical or anonymous events. Laurence Golborne, the new mining minister for the Republic of Chile, was visiting in Ecuador on the night of August 5, 2010, when his chief of staff back in Santiago sent him a simple but urgent text message: “Mine cave-in Copiapó; 33 victims.” Twenty-eight hours later, at 3:30 a.m. on August 7, Golborne arrived at the remote site of the mining disaster in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. Soon, hundreds of millions of people around the globe would be witnessing one of the greatest mining rescues of all time.

Like the miners in Chile, American International Group (AIG) — the financial services giant heading for the cataract — was ultimately rescued through direct government intervention. The company was deemed “too big to fail,” though it was almost too toxic to save. When the subprime mortgage market in which AIG was deeply invested began to collapse, top AIG executives had taken few protective measures. Their tone-deaf response to the tumultuous events that unfolded left the company vulnerable to one of the greatest corporate collapses in business history.

How different the actions taken by Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain when Ulysses S. Grant handed him the historic duty of coordinating a follow-up ceremony to Robert E. Lee’s April 9, 1865, surrender at Appomattox. Chamberlain decided that instead of humiliating the Confederate army, as might have been expected after four years of civil war, he would somehow salute the enemy to start a process of national reconciliation.

Two of the leaders we have just met were well prepared when summoned to moments of decision. The other, recent history showed us, was obviously not. To be sure, few of us are likely to have our mettle tested in such trying circumstances. But all of us can and should prepare for less-public crises in our own spheres of serving, to be decisive when it really counts.

My work on leadership development in the U.S. and abroad — and the work of an array of other researchers and observers — tells me that the absence of an action checklist is one of most correctable lapses in leadership. Through the simple step of creating and consistently applying the equivalent of a pilot or surgeon’s checklist, a leader is readied for whatever may come.

I have also become convinced that with leadership, as with much else, brevity is the soul of wit. Albert Einstein once described the calling of modern physics as an effort to make the physical universe as simple as possible — but not simpler. The leader’s checklist is likewise at its best when it is as bare-bones as possible — but not more so. Just fifteen mission-critical principles can define its core for most leaders, and the principles vary surprisingly little among companies or countries.

Four of the mission-critical principles for a leader’s checklist stress having a vision of where you want the enterprise to go and then taking charge, acting strategically, and deciding decisively:

1. Articulate a Vision. Formulate a clear and persuasive vision and communicate it to all members of the enterprise.

2. Take Charge. Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference.

3. Act Strategically. Set forth a pragmatic strategy for achieving that vision both short- and long-term, and ensure that it is widely understood; consider all the players, and anticipate reactions and resistance before they are manifest.

4. Decide Decisively. Make good and timely decisions, and ensure that they are executed.

Taken together, these principles constitute a foundation for what we often deem to be decisive leadership. But they also come with an underlying proviso so vital that it should constitute a still additional principle, in my view, on everybody’s checklist. To appreciate the importance of that extra principle, we elaborate on the Confederate surrender at Appomattox (elaboration of the rescue in Chile and the failure of AIG can be found in The Leader’s Checklist).

General Grant, who had accepted the formal surrender on behalf of the Union at Appomattox, ordered a follow-up ceremony three days later, with more than 4,000 Union soldiers to be lined at attention on one side of a field. General Lee’s defeated infantry units were then to march onto the field to place their regimental flags and firearms at the foot of a Union officer in charge. For the honor of orchestrating the event and taking charge of it, Grant had designated a citizen soldier from Maine, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Grant and Lee at Appomattox

As the first Confederate brigade approached Union forces, Chamberlain ordered a bugle call that told Union soldiers to “carry arms” — a posture of respect in which soldiers hold the musket in their right hand with the muzzle perpendicular to their shoulders. Both Union and Confederate soldiers understood its meaning, since their military traditions had emanated from the same sources.

A Southern general riding near the front of the Confederate forces, John B. Gordon, appreciated the respectful signal that Chamberlain’s soldiers displayed toward the Rebel soldiers on their day of ignominy, and Gordon ordered the same posture to be displayed in by his own troops.

The incident became known as a “salute returning a salute,” a moment remembered for years by those who witnessed or heard of it, and one that implied reunification. Some of Chamberlain’s fellow officers were angered by witnessing such a fraternal act after fighting the same soldiers on so many killing fields. And for Chamberlain himself, it was a matter of saluting those who had tried to kill him only days before.

For President Abraham Lincoln, the South’s capitulation at Appomattox constituted not only an ending point for the armed rebellion but also a starting point for national reconciliation. Even for him, however, the road to reunion was a bitter pill given the Union’s grievous losses on the battlefields. Events would take a horrible personal turn just two days after Chamberlain’s salute to the Rebel army as the president and his wife watched a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

For both sides, though, gestures of reconciliation were more important than the hostilities that remained. The latter were natural, the former learned, and Chamberlain’s moment at the conclusion of the Civil War serves to remind us of the vital importance of the additional leader’s checklist principle: placing common mission ahead of personal interest or animosity, especially when its seems least natural to do so.

The leadership principle of mission first is well expressed in our oft-used phrases of “servant” or “selfless” leadership, and it is well captured in a U.S. Marine Corps dictum: “The officer eats last.” In business, it appears in Jim Collins’s appraisal as one of the defining qualities of those who lead their companies from “good to great.” Decisive leadership depends upon articulating a vision, setting strategy, taking charge, and making timely decisions — and taking all such actions with common purpose set firmly ahead of self-interest.

Michael Useem, author of The Leader’s Checklist, is the Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management and William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Leadership Moment, Investor Capitalism, and The Go Point, among other books.

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