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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Campus

From NASA to Mount Everest, Breakfast Speaker Champions Leadership in Adversity

WHETHER IT’S IN THE HEAT of a Civil War battlefield, the nerve center of a NASA space flight, or trapped in a blizzard on the side of the world’s tallest mountain, Michael Useem is a scholar who examines great leadership wherever he finds it. Gripping examples of strength and courage in the face of adversity were at the heart of Useem’s keynote address to the Seattle Pacific University Downtown Business Breakfast on April 12, 2005.

“What makes the difference between great and subpar leadership?” Useem asked the 900 business and civic leaders in attendance at the annual event. “Three things: Great leaders always talk vision, always have a strategy to achieve the vision, and always honor those who look to them for leadership.”

Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Useem is a firm believer that leadership matters most when it is least clear what course should be taken. At a question-and-answer session following the breakfast, he suggested that good decision making must include integrity and humility.

“Never underestimate personal, ethical decision making,” he urged. “Have a well-developed point of view, create a place where others can do their best work, and burn your ships after you arrive so that all you can do is go forward.”

Useem, who teaches M.B.A. and Executive M.B.A. courses at Wharton, has served as a consultant to the United Nations; the U.S. government; and several major corporations, including American Express, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Goldman Sachs, Sprint, and Toyota. Each year, he directs an annual leadership trek to Mount Everest, where a group of his students test their limits and leadership ability under extreme conditions.

In his book, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win (Three Rivers Press, 2001), Useem devotes an entire chapter to leadership principles found in the Old Testament. From the intercessory leadership that Abraham, Moses, and Samuel practiced with God himself, Useem draws three lessons.

First, he says, even when you report to the ultimate authority, it is your duty — and in this case a sacred one — to give your best counsel, render your best judgment, and persist in the expression of both, whether such “upward leadership” is specifically sought or not.

Second, he says, a leader’s calling is to remain steadfast on behalf of those who are recognizably superior, faithfully understanding their intent and executing their mission.

Finally, Useem argues the biblical texts show that the greater the gap between you and the superior, the more you need to be humble, riveted on the welfare of those below, and wholly cognizant of your responsibilities.

“Dr. Useem is a superb scholar whose teaching I first heard at a Wharton seminar,” says SPU President Philip Eaton. “He helped those who attended see the marks of good leadership and how to make a difference in the institutions and people that look to our example.”


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