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Book Review: Leadership Moment

Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment
This is my second book review – The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem. The book shares nine short, true stories of moments of leadership. Useem does a great job capturing stories from executives of large corporations to fire chiefs and extreme climbers. Each story details the events and decisions of the leaders and the implications of each leader’s actions (or inaction).

Takeaways from the book:
  • Successful leaders take action decisively, and as soon as possible. Extreme leadership moments tend to occur out of extraordinary circumstances like Apollo 13’s Eugene Kranz. Eugene was the NASA Flight Director in charge of the control room, and he had the unenviable leadership moment to bring back the astronauts of the crippled Apollo 13. Given the incredibly depleting oxygen levels and power, Kranz had to make decision after decision quickly and decisively.
  • Inaction is sometimes the most damning action of all. Useem shares the story of John Gutfreund’s fall at Salomon Inc. Gutfreund failed to address continuous SEC infractions by one of his employees, Paul Mozer. Paul was pocketing millions of dollars while misappropriating Salomon’s clients funds to side-step SEC regulations. Gutfreund knew of Mozer’s transgressions and failed to not only reprimand Mozer, but also failed to share the known infractions with the SEC. Investigations would embroil Salomon into scandals that eventually forced Gutfreund to leave the CEO post while the company fought for survival.
  • Communication, trust, and delegation enables a leader to accomplish more than s/he could ever achieve alone. Leveraging Apollo 13’s Eugene Kranz again, Useem shared how Kranz created several specialist groups to find solutions to some of the most complex scenarios NASA has ever experienced. Kranz knew his team members were some of the brightest, most capable people. He bestowed the greatest trust and delegation to his teams with the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts at stake.
  • Remember the ethos of the company to have a great impact. Roy Vagelos at Merck Pharmaceuticals had developed a drug that could cure and prevent early stage river blindness called Mectizan. Problem was, the 20M people who needed it was largely poor. To develop the drug would cost Merck hundreds of millions including testing, adhere to regulations, distribution, etc. Roy decided that despite little to no return to shareholders, it was Merck’s responsibility to develop and distribute the drug at no cost forever. Roy leaned on the company’s mission to “provide innovative, distinctive products and services that save and improve lives”. Since 1986, the drug has been distributed to over 55M people.
These were just a few of the lessons from The Leadership Moment. There are several implications per story.

I really enjoyed the book as it made me put myself into the situations of the leaders. It’s easy to see some of the missteps and challenges each leader was faced with. It’s even easier to assume I would make the smart, best moves, but in the situation, much is happening that decisions will be complicated. However, by reading these stories, I hope to be ready for my leadership moments in the future.


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