These Leaders Are Having a Moment

A new book tells how extraordinary leaders performed in defining moments – and helps you make the most of yours.

These days, what works for Hollywood works for business books as well: Borrow rich characters and dramatic episodes from the classics, and use them to spice up a high-concept story line. In The Leadership Moment, Michael Useem takes that formula one critical step further, adding useful insights that help create a blend of gripping adventure and actionable advice. Useem, the director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, offers nine accounts of leadership in extraordinary circumstances. Among the moments chronicled here are Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg; Nancy Barry’s audacious drive to establish microfinance as a development engine; and Alfredo Cristiani’s “negotiated revolution,” which ended the protracted civil war in El Salvador.


Inspiring and tragic, famous and obscure, Useem’s tales add up to a subtle yet fundamental insight: Leadership is a performance, and people become leaders only in the moment of that performance. Of course, not just any moment will do. To glimpse the nature of leadership, you need the kind of moment that Hollywood excels at producing – one with “extraordinary” stakes and “searing” stress – the kind of moment that NASA flight director Eugene Kranz (portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13) had shortly after he heard that unforgettable transmission, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” But defining moments are not the special province of astronauts and mountain climbers, of CEOs and soldiers. In fact, at a time in business history when the rules are changing and the pace is accelerating, there are more such moments than ever – and a greater expectation that people at all levels will make the most of them.

When your neck is on the line, what gets you through the moment? According to Useem, you can prepare “by standing where [others] have stood during their defining moments.” His book not only takes us into the experiences of others but also draws out striking lessons about decision making, team building, and human behavior. Four broad guidelines for mastering the moment emerge from Useem’s work.

Insist on the impossible.

To make a difference, you must be willing to love a lost cause. Roy Vagelos’s campaign to eradicate river blindness posed a seemingly impossible challenge. River blindness – a disease carried by blackflies – had long frustrated the efforts of public-health agencies. But in the 1970s, scientists at Merck & Co., where Vagelos was then senior vice president of research, hit upon a potentially revolutionary solution. Vagelos and his colleagues faced a major problem, however: The drug they proposed to develop might cost $200 million, and it had no prospect of attracting customers who could pay for it. Vagelos’s moment came soon after he was named CEO in 1985: Against the protests of his advisers, he developed the drug – and then spent hundreds of millions of dollars to distribute it to people who were at risk of contracting the disease.

Prepare relentlessly.

The Hollywood version of the Apollo 13 mission fixed into public consciousness the image of Eugene Kranz’s extraordinary resolve – in part by putting into his mouth the catch phrase “Failure is not an option.” But the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts rested on a deeper foundation than Kranz’s grace under pressure. Useem highlights three practices: Kranz put flight teams through simulated crises, thereby enabling them to make correct decisions in short periods of time. To create seamless communications among the astronauts, he situated functionally equivalent members of each flight team in the same office. And by organizing baseball and football games, he pushed the astronauts to compete as a team.

Communicate persuasively.

Louis XIV may be famous for his remark “L’Etat c’est moi,” but his favorite phrase was “I shall see.” One of his principles of power was to say as little as possible – in order to keep those around him off balance. But in a critical moment, that’s a recipe for disaster, Useem argues. He tells the story of Wagner Dodge, an otherwise exceptional smoke jumper whose imperious refusal to communicate resulted in the deaths of 13 men in one of the worst disasters in U.S. Forest Service history.

Break rules.

Values and vision often serve as a more compelling guide than rules and conventions do. Roy Vagelos broke the biggest business rule of all when he moved beyond the “narrowly defined calculus” of his corporation’s bottom-line profitability. Vagelos violated the fiduciary trust vested in him by Merck’s stockholders. Yet he remained true to the company’s mission, which states, “We are in the business of preserving and improving human life.” The consequences of Vagelos’s transgression? By 1996, Merck’s drug for river blindness had reached nearly 19 million people, and the company was widely lauded for distributing it. What’s more, the company’s approach to the business of science became a magnet for attracting the best research talent.