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Book Review: The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles by Michael Useem

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A tightly written and superbly designed publication, The Leader’s Checklist reads like an adventure yarn, but packs a goldmine of scholarship and tested observations, that surrounds a list of fifteen principles that guide and teach managers to make on-target, effective business decisions, under real pressure.
Michael Useem is director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management and William Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

On his journey to this publication, Useem authored or co-wrote notable business books like The Leadership Moment, Investor Capitalism, The Go Point and, last year, produced the amazing The India Way. Each is stamped with a signature style that shares the excitement he and his colleagues felt as they unearthed yet another useful tale of notable success (and failure) among world business leaders. Their research also encompassed historic figures, even controversial ones.

The Leader’s Checklist is a bold effort. From its title onwards, to the checklist and its mighty cluster of conclusions, examples, and instructions, it’s worthy of being ‘ticked off’ on their reading lists, by aspiring decision makers. Useem’s list resembles in principle, the flight take-off checklists de rigueur for airline flight crews and surgeons. The author describes the book this way: “a complete set of vital leadership principles that are tried, tested, and true.” Only a professor of self- confidence and eminence could pen such words.

These guidelines from Useem and the Wharton team’s experiences and the testing of their findings with current business and other leaders, begin with this instructional item: “1. Study leadership moments”. It passes through 13 fascinating points (read them; they sparkle) and then loops high and long over expansion and clarification – to land at a final checklist item: “15. Place common interest first (self interest last).” At the rounding off point, Professor Useem dives provocatively, back to the Civil War and a controversial decision by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

The book features a ’list maintenance’ section and adds The Owner’s Manual – a guide to reshaping the principles that will serve Checklist readers well, in changing times like today’s. Those hard-won, tirelessly probed and refined principles, Useem asserts, will function at their most fruitful, where intense turbulence has now become the norm. It is a pity, to my mind, that Fukushima, Egypt, and Libya and so on, have now come upon us all, and that sadly, no heroic manager has yet emerged, eager and competent to make fruitful decisions. So we must await a new Useem book to possibly unearth one. Fortunately, the relative speed of production and distribution of e-books and other e-media, favors another such Wharton Digital Press endeavor, quite soon.

Individuals and small groups suddenly faced with making ‘mission critical’ moves under high-stress conditions are the unrelenting focus of this unique effort. It is ‘Wharton-professorial’ in connecting a wide spread of live and historic examples and then packaging them in a lucid, even exciting manner. The book will keep the reader turning all 50 pages, almost in thriller-style. Even the richly informative End Notes section is packed with success notes and links that distinctly extend this book’s clout and worth.

Some of Michael Useem’s choices of examples may be controversial but it won’t matter; it might well add to the impact of a reader’s experience. Good professors are the ones who keep you open-mouthed. A few gasps won’t hurt. One such choice will either produce teeth grinding or approving smiles, among American readers of U.S. history: the author points to a Civil War figure, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his surprising, even shocking decision in April 1865, to honor his enemy when he signaled for the ragged remainder of a once-proud Confederate unit to be honored with a salute.

Although the Wharton School includes U.S. military among its client list, this book chooses not to name any from the last and present century. Says Michael Useem of Chamberlain, “Instead of humiliating the Confederate army, as might have been expected after four years of (bloody) civil war, (Chamberlain, in 1865 is charged with task of coordinating the event), ordered a respectful salute and launched a healing process that would reunite a country.” He describes the decisive move as set in concert with the decision-making style as that of the Chilean Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne, who coordinated a unique government-supported rescue of trapped survivors at a mining cave-in in Copiapo. It was watched by anxious eyes, both of waiting relatives and people of many nations via television and photography, during August into September 2010.

But Golborne is a politician and lives in a foggy world of compromise. Controversy hangs over both events to some extent. Differences of view remain in both quarters: over Chamberlain and also through the continuance period of the litigation cases in Chile after the mine disaster. Yet, the Wharton professor is nimbly able to nimbly his account in such a fashion that he can convince us, in his closely-involved prose style, that the two comprise valid illustrative case studies. It is, for some readers perhaps, a scintillating romp compared with more ‘scholarly’ writing. This is an extra-ordinary leadership handbook in any case, from an author who doesn’t seem fazed when he describes what it’s like to peer into a crevasse and overcome its hazard. He takes risks himself, and most of them work.

The book is more than a collection of occasionally-surprising findings and suggestions for executive action. It’s an energizing experience and those who choose to access it, resembles your response when crystalline snowflakes slap your cheeks, while you toboggan through a forest break. Astringent, powerful ideas form densely packed banks of proven guidelines, refined into action sets. They are flexible and seem to work in a wide range of locations where each one is capable of proving to be transferable for your use, with only a little ‘re-jigging’.

The Leader’s Checklist package is cleverly designed to fit snugly into a tiny 50-page space that’s legibly presented, clearly signposted and readily navigable (even on my own Kindle PC!). If you run an eye over of Professor Useem’s publications (several are written with colleagues) from the last decade or so, you will find a body of work that’s subtly reworked, in this fine book. But it remains scholarly and ‘professorial’. On-site experiences, research, long thought and a search for similarities between locations and civilizations – all these elements are combined, organized and tested for use, to complete the text of arguably one of the most readily applied ‘help’ books available anywhere in the western business world. The e-book – perhaps novel to the Wharton general style, but amenable to online access, will undoubtedly form a worthy flag ship for Wharton Digital Press, based in Philadelphia.

This book does stall once, but deliciously, when you turn to its gem of an End Papers section. That effort stamps the scholarly impression element on the publication in an impatient, hurrying, online world, where correct and reassuring attribution and referencing seem to have flown out the window, by ‘overnight gurus’ in the realm of small business guides. There, the links to useful tomes and articles would be valued, if offered, more for generating the benefit of good SEO, loaded with links, and heaps of ‘trending’ key words. But lively, flowing, even hypnotic story-telling words, belong in this book which reads just a shade more like a Jeff Shaara war history-novel or the priceless ‘conversation’ of the late, deeply-lamented historian, Shelby Foote.

Abraham Lincoln coined this parable one time, while assessing conundrums about the issues in the Civil War; “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as a destroyer of liberty especially if the sheep is a black one.” (Quoted by James McPherson in the ‘afterlogue’ to Battle Cry of Freedom…)  So it also seems, when using stories of great decisions, one reader may see Joshua Lawrence as a saint and another will recognize a devil. Some liberators are occupiers, dressed in raiment of exported democracy exporters. It is a dilemma that I feel Professor Useem faces. Despite this minor quibble, this volume is a tour de force and a mighty start by the new publishing arm of The Wharton School.

Michael Useem, The Leader’s Checklist by, Wharton Digital Press was released on 21 June and to mark its debut will be available from major online outlets as a free e-book download, until 28 June. The list price: $7.08.

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