UPFRONT : Leadership means staying on the high side

It’s perhaps not surprising that when visiting American leadership educator and author Michael Useem* is asked his impressions of New Zealand leadership, the exemplar that springs to his mind first is Sir Edmund Hillary.
Mountaineering is sport Useem makes special use of for learning leadership – each year his MBA students at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) go on ‘leadership trek’ to the Himalayas. He says that in examining how individuals and teams have attempted to climb Everest, “we can see in stark relief virtually all of the qualities that define great, and sometimes deplorable, leadership”.
And although his knowledge of New Zealand’s organisational leaders is limited largely to those attending the seminars he was running here, he believes the “selfless” leadership model that Hillary represents has lot of currency in the local business culture.
“The scale here is interesting. In America, you can’t talk about the business ‘community’ because it doesn’t really exist. People in Dallas are worlds away from those in Wall Street. Here everyone knows lot about [individual members’] leadership performance and careers which means bizarre or self-serving behaviour is heard about and not appreciated.”
The Hillary ethos is one he regrets that America seems to be moving away from in some respects. There the good company manager is the one with huge amounts of stock options, he observes wryly.
“It’s to do with seeing executives as agents of shareholders, therefore the job of directors is to discipline executives on behalf of shareholders. The underlying thesis – and this is why we have the [high] levels of compensation we do – is that US executives will not respond to normal incentives of doing things for the good of the community but will respond to big fat compensations.
“That underestimates the power of the nexus – the approval of yourself as person from colleagues, peers, family, community.”
These are influences that also impact on another increasingly important element in the leadership toolkit – resilience. “Leading with resilience” was the theme of Wharton’s recent 10th annual leadership conference which, says Useem, is all about identifying capabilities required to lead group or organisation through uncertain and challenging times.
There’s bunch of reasons – including the “massive sucking sound from China” as Americans transfer operations there as well as increased work hours – why business conditions have become more challenging.
“So if you’re in leadership position and you’re not strong then everyone else is going to look even weaker. The formula is… that people are under more stress at the very time when leadership has become more important for getting results.
“Therefore the ability to bounce back from adversity – to stay on the high side when all the conditions around you might otherwise draw you down – is increasingly vital. Clinically, psychologically, resilience is good – it leads to better marriage, good friendship because it’s good to be around someone who’s upbeat – but in an enterprise if you haven’t got it, then you’re just not going to survive leadership position.”
Useem has rich vein of anecdotal evidence to call on when it comes to illustrating the sort of negative barrage that is the daily lot of many business leaders. Those who cope best are those who are able to separate themselves from their role, to realistically face the problems and constraints without being flattened by them, to focus on what does work rather than what’s going wrong and to generate centre of calm in which strong, rational decisions can still be made.
That need to develop personal centre of calm is why Wharton’s management learning programmes now include meditation and Useem is clear that such leadership attributes may come as givens but can also be learned or improved on.
“Our philosophy is that everybody, not matter how good or bad they are, can definitely improve. Maybe they’re not gong to be the next Bill Clinton and there aren’t too many Mother Teresas but we take the unique elements of those, look at the greats, extract the skill sets, then break those down into whole bunch of tactics which we can help people get better at.”
That includes what could be described as the more ‘trivial’ skills like learning how to remember people’s names. “It has to do with how you take these big concepts like generating good teamwork and take it to very tactical level and force yourself to be more assiduous about remembering names and ask enough questions to get some associations for that person,” says Useem.
Asked what all his years of research have taught him about which leadership traits carry the most weight, he comes up with four.
Strategic thinking, persuasive communication, and decisive decision-making.
“The fourth is obvious but you have to say it – if you are not person of integrity then you’re stuck in the wrong game.”

* Michael Useem is professor of management and director of the Centre for Leadership and Change Management at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and consults on leadership with wide range of US companies and organisations. Books include Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits (Random House, 2003) and Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win (Random House, 2001).

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