Michael Useem and climbing the Everest of leadership

Over the years, Wharton management professor Michael Useem has used mountain climbing, Marine Corps boot camps, and visits to the Gettysburg Battlefield to teach leadership.

You could say he wrote the book on leadership, but he's actually written seven of them, including 2011's The Leader's Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles.

So it was illuminating to talk with him, following his most recent expedition to climb Mount Everest with a group of senior and midlevel managers, about what seems to be a failure of leadership globally over the last year.

Europe seems mired in a nonstop financial crisis where decisive actions have proved elusive. In Washington, the Republicans and Democrats have become too polarized to find consensus on any major legislation, including addressing the $1.2 trillion budget deficit through a combination of changes in tax policy and spending decisions.

In the private sector, top bankers continue to catch darts rather than laurels. Barclays P.L.C. CEO Robert Diamond lost his job over the bank's role in rigging the London interbank offered rate. JP Morgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon has been roundly criticized for the bank's $2 billion loss on credit derivative contracts.

Even the lionized technology sector has faced accusations of resumé padding (Yahoo's ex-CEO Scott Thompson) and an inability to innovate (BlackBerry maker Research in Motion's former co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis).

The 16th annual version of the Wharton Leadership Conference, hosted by Useem last month, offered a nod to all the turmoil with its theme "Leading in a World of Conflict."

During a phone interview, Useem wasn't about to ditch the academic propensity for data and research in favor of pop-culture punditry about the state of leadership. But he made one observation that came close. "When leadership does not work well, we become more aware of it than when it does go well," he said.

He might as well have been talking about offensive linemen in the National Football League, players who are rarely noticed save when they miss the block that leads to a possession-killing quarterback sack.

But leaders, whether they are CEOs in the private sector, or governors and presidents in the public sector, often garner more attention than other employees.

"Leadership is an individual and team sport at the same time," Useem said. The CEO may grab the business-magazine cover photo, but the highest-functioning organizations have deep teams of managers who exhibit leadership traits that produce results.

As director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, Useem has made a name for himself as a management guru, and he has consulted with many of the world's biggest companies. Whether a company pays the bill for an executive M.B.A. for up-and-coming managers ($65,000 on average nationwide) or just hands over a copy of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People (75 cents on Half.com), leadership development is a burgeoning industry.

According to the American Society for Training & Development, overall spending on organizational learning and development in 2010 was $171.5 billion, up more than 30 percent from 2009. Executive development, which includes programs such as the recent mountain-climbing expedition hosted by Useem, accounted for about 6.3 percent of all learning and development spending, the Alexandria, Va.-based professional association said.

Wharton's June trip to Everest involved 25 CEOs and other senior executives. For example, the CEO of a Peruvian bank brought 13 top managers because, as Useem said, the institution was finding itself running all sorts of nonfinancial businesses, including supermarkets and movie theaters, and needing to think differently.

Plunking a bunch of executives onto a mountainside might seem more like a high-adventure vacation than a way to teach leadership. But Useem is a firm believer in taking people out of their comfort zone and putting them in settings where their decisions have a noticeable impact on the success or failure of an expedition.

Lander, Wyo.-based National Outdoor Leadership School, which has been running Wharton's wilderness programs since 2003, believes that learning "expedition behavior" — involving team cooperation, conflict resolution, motivation and simply getting along with others — translates well to office settings.

An article about NOLS in the April edition of the Harvard Business Review noted that the uncertainty inherent in expeditions is true for business, as well. In one arena, the terrain is rough and the weather unpredictable; in the other, business conditions are rarely static and companies must adapt to new technologies and trends.

There are those who criticize executive development as a waste of money. After all, CEOs should know how to lead. That's what they get the big bucks for, right?

Useem said most people starting out in business know what they need to do to get the job done. But leadership "is a lifelong journey to work out how you lead," he said. "The way you do it this year may need to change next year."

That said, a checklist can help keep anyone, including CEOs, from making what Useem calls "unforced errors." "Is it conceivable that a pilot would not check the fuel before takeoff or the surgeon has the right patient before operating?" he said.

Useem freely admits that he cribbed the idea for his 15-principle leader's checklist from surgeon Atul Gawande, who wrote The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right in 2009. And while an actual checklist for leading General Electric Co. is likely very different from the one for leading Google Inc., there are common elements, from communicating a vision and taking charge to "honoring the room," which Useem defines as acknowledging the people you work with and expressing gratitude for their hard work.

The fact remains that while no pilot would dream of taking off without running through a checklist, many leaders don't have as rigid a routine. "They can fall short in bridging what they know and what they do," Useem said.

When it comes to the question of whether leaders are born or made, Useem is clearly in the camp the leadership can be learned: "We take the stance that it's a work in progress."


Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.