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Speed Review: Leading Up

Speed Review: Leading Up

Speed Review: Leading Up

How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win

by Michael Useem

Wharton professor Useem offers another set of compelling stories from a variety of disciplines; this time, he’s exploring the topic of leading your superiors.


How (and Why) You Must Lead the Boss
During a period of 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans - including Tutsis and moderate Hutus - were murdered. Canadian Brigadier General Roméo A. Dallaire, force commander of the United Nations peace-keeping force in Rwanda, saw the danger coming. Desperate pleas to his superiors for reinforcements and permission to try to stop the attacks were unanswered. As a result, he could only watch helplessly as the killing began - including, as Dallaire's intelligence sources had predicted - the killing of Belgian peace-keeping troops. Wharton Management professor Michael Useem is convinced that the tragedy might have been attenuated or avoided altogether if Dallaire had been able to convince his superiors to listen to him. While a great leader of troops, Dallaire was not able to "lead up" - to muster support from top level commanders when needed. Useem's new book, Leading Up, attempts to describe the skills necessary to make you not only a motivator of the troops, but also a respected and effective partner of high-level leaders.

Key Lessons
In his 1998 book, The Leadership Moment, Useem offered a course on leadership built around nine fascinating stories pulled from a variety of domains: medicine, mountain-climbing, firefighting, insurance, securities, American history, finance in emerging economies and, finally, conflict in Central America. Throughout these long, detailed but compelling stories, Useem inserted "by implication" notes explaining the leadership lesson just learned.

Leading Up is a similar anthology of stories, each as compelling to read as the stories in his first collection, and each offering key lessons on leadership. As illustrated by the book's subtitle, How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win, the focus in Leading Up is knowing how to be a leader not only when leading subordinates, but also when "leading" superiors and bosses. As with the previous collection, Useem draws on a variety of examples in different areas - including business, natural catastrophe, religion, war, humanitarian disasters and politics - which only reinforce the lessons and make them memorable.

Being a Risk Taker
Among the business stories Useem offers is the tale of how Charles Schwab revolutionized the brokerage industry. By now, readers of business books are familiar with the oft-cited case of Charles Schwab & Co. leaving Merrill Lynch and other brokerage giants in the dust as it created a business model that combined both personal services and electronic technology. Useem shows how David Pottruck, chief operating officer of Charles Schwab & Co., masterminded the revolution by first carefully convincing Schwab to take a chance on a radical new way of doing business in the field. The risk to the future of the firm was huge, yet Pottruck had built a thorough case for his proposal.

The lesson to be learned from Pottruck, Useem explains, is not only knowing how to sell a proposal, but - just as important - how to make and stand by a risky decision. As champion of the new business model, Pottruck knew that if it failed, so did he.

Useem uses Pottruck as an example on the following "lesson in leading up":"Risk taking is a defining element of any leadership," Useem writes, "and calculated management of it is essential. To succeed as a risk taker on behalf of those above you, decisions need to be arrived at both quickly and accurately, and despite the grave uncertainties and large stakes that may be involved, if they are yours to take, it is essential for you to make them rather than kick them upstairs."

"Lessons in Leading Up" - sidebars such as the paragraph just cited - are sprinkled throughout the book, pinpointing the lessons to be gleaned from the text. Everyone at any level will benefit from Leading Up - and in the process, they will read some fascinating stories of those who knew how to lead, and those who didn't.

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