Customer Reviews: The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All
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on June 11, 1999
This book by Michael Useem was the first book I tackled in my MBA class on current managegemt theory. It fullfilled my need to research leadership, and captivated my subconscious mind as well. Everyday that has since passed has presented many opportunities for recall from one of the nine impactful stories on leadership.
This book teaches one how to be prepared to be a leader when the opportunity presents itself. The subject of vision, a necessary tool for individual and corporate leadership, is so completely incorporated in the first story of Roy Vagelos and Merck that the reader will never find the topic of vision as a pie-in-the-sky theoretical corporate gimmick without deep-seated attachment to core values again.
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on December 31, 2007
My wife had to read the story of the Wagner Dodge and the men who perished in the Mann Gulch fire for a class. It piqued my curiosity, so I read the story, too. It was a very good read. However, something that didn't seem to jive was that a man who had been a 9 year veteran of the 10 year old branch of firefighting called "smoke jumping" would not have established a system of command and control for his crew. This was especially odd since he was an experienced foreman/crew chief with advance knowledge in the expertise of smoke jumping and firefighting. The author, Michael Useem, who is/was the director of the Wharton School's Center for Leadership and Change Management, is adamant that Dodge did not communicate well with his hastily thrown together mixed crew of inexperienced, experienced, young, and old firefighters. Useem asserts that Dodge was a failed leader, whose actions and poor communication, in effect, aided in the demise of about 13 of his crew.

Well, my wife and I decided to investigate a little further and we found that it is likely that either the author intentionally omitted important details about the event and testimonies of the survivors in order to persuade the reader to his assertion or Useem did not perform due diligence in investigating available sources. It is also possible that in 1998, pertinent information was not so readily available on the web. I could be wrong, but the discrepancies between Useem's account and various accounts on the web are marked. In fact, the diagram on p48 of the area and the routes taken by the smoke jumpers and the locations of the fire differ from online sources as well.

Critical differences:

*** p55 Useem states: "He (Dodge) did not share his appraisals, barely explained his actions, scarcely even communicated his growing alarm."

First off, in the very same paragraph, Useem states that Dodge did communicate his concern about their surroundings as being a "death trap". "Source 1" (ref'd below) mentions that both survivors indicated that Dodge referenced the types of trees that made the area a "death trap", indicating he was trying to convey to the men the situation they were in and why.

*** pp47-49 possible error of chronology - Useem's order of events follow:
1.Smoke jumpers (SJ) land, gather equipment, and eat at Dodge's suggestion.
2.SJ w/Dodge head down the gulch
3."Firefigher already in the area" joins Dodge, et al. (Firefighter's name is Jim Harrison - not provided by Useem)
4. Dodge tells SJ to stop while he scouts out the fire ahead.
5. Dodge returns and tells the SJ's to head down the gulch towards river because the fire is getting out of hand.
6. Dodge goes to get food back at the landing zone (leaving them presumably w/o a leader)
7. The men get divided.
8. Dodge rejoins the men and regroups them
9. They continue to travel towards the river and then find the mouth of the gulch is blocked by a spot fire.
10. Dodge has his men reverse course to get away from the fire but does not explain his actions.

The chronology from "Source 2" referenced below:

1. SJ land, gather equipment, and eat at Dodge's suggestion.
2. Dodge does not eat with crew, but heads towards Jim Harrison, who was the firefighter mentioned by Useem who was "already in the area". "Source 2 mentions that Harrison was busy fighting the fire. Before Dodge sets off, he appoints Wm Hellman to lead the men down the gulch after they have gathered their equipment. Useem omits the fact that Dodge never left the group without having someone in charge, which I believe is a rather crucial detail when evaluating someone's effectiveness as a leader.
3. Dodge and Harrison leave the ridge that Dodge found Harrison on, they eat and meet up with the rest of the SJ's that were continuing down the gulch under Hellman's charge.
4. Five minutes after Dodge and Harrison joined and brought the group back together, they discover the gulch is blocked by a spot fire.
5. Dodge and the rest of the men see the fires rushing up the gulch and Dodge has everyone quickly reverse course to try to outrun the flames.

Important distinctions from the perspective the alternate sources:

1. Dodge never leaves them without a leader.
2. Dodge did not scout out the fire ahead of the SJ's advance towards the fire.
3. Dodge did not leave the group to go back to get forgotten supplies
4. Dodge went to meet Harrison, the "firefighter in the area", and brought him to the group, opposed to Harrison joining the group before Dodge separated from the group.
5. The SJ's clearly understood why they were turning around as they saw the rushing fires coming towards them.

My personal belief is that Useem was trying to fit this story to model a specific characteristic of leadership failure. Knowing that titles and positions do not confer, nor necessarily require, honor, integrity, or honesty, I think this could be a real possibility.

Ponder this, in the 2000 election, Al Gore ran an ad saying that Texas was the worst polluting state in the union due to spills, contamination, etc. and referenced an EPA report with the intent of making it look like then Gov. Bush was ruining the environment in that state. Well, when I looked up the report, I found that Al Gore was absolutely correct. By shear volume or tonnage of spills, Texas was the worst. However, it you averaged it over the number of reporting plants in the state, by land mass, per capita, or as compared to percentage reclaimed, Texas was normally ranked as one of the best states while Arkansas and Tennessee were average to below average. Bear in mind that Texas (and Louisiana) have a tremendous amount of petro-chemical production relative to the rest of the country. The point is that contextual information was omitted in order to paint a specific picture that was not representative of the reality of the situation as a normal person might evaluate it.

Presenting facts in such a way as to obfuscate what they indicate is deceit, and is therefore no different than a lie. Because I believe that this is what the author might have engaged in, if only in this single chapter, for me it destroys his credibility, and I cannot in good conscience give any stars for his book. (I had to give one to post, but I had no other choice)

For what its worth,

Timo ('s husband)
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on January 13, 2001
Useem distills lessons for the reader from the 9 events described in his book. Some of his example case studies have heroic elements to them, yet he focuses on the basis of the decision making process of the principal - rather than only the net effect. Thus, providing the reader with tangible leadership tools to help steer any group, team or organization to their goals.
A good read for any manager, coach or leader.
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on June 23, 2012
As the author best captures it in the introduction, the book's premise is as follows: "We all need to be ready for those moments when our leadership is on the line and the fate or fortune of others depends on what we do...It is my view that one of the most effective ways of preparing for such challenges is by looking at what others have done when their own leadership was on the line. By examining their experience and asking what they did and what they could have done, and by wondering what you would have done yourself, you can better anticipate what you should do when faced with your own leadership challenges. This book presents accounts of nine such experiences. "

The experiences are diverse, and so are the perspectives and wisdom that are shared. The reader will naturally find herself reliving them and reflecting on what she would have in these situations. Am action gripping and learning filled read on leadership!

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- "Collectively, these stories and the principles drawn from them offer a threefold prescription: prepare yourself, prepare your colleagues, prepare your organization."

2- "1) Powers of the office: power to reward, power to punish, power of budget. 2) Organizational Leadership: empowerment, reorganization. 3) Personal Leadership: expertise, character."

3- "The single most important lesson from these moments is the overwhelming significance of vision and action. Without a clear sense of destination, we are apt to flounder about, and without knowing how to get to that destination, we will never reach it even when we see it."

4- "Nine Leadership Moments, Nine Leadership Principles - Know yourself, Explain yourself, Expect much, Gain commitment, Build now, Prepare yourself, Move fast, Find yourself, Remain steadfast."

5- "It is not just how many followers one has; it is also how many leaders one has created among them. The more leadership in the ranks, the more effective is one's own."

6- "Achieving an organization's imperative is a leader's calling, but sometimes we confront moments when we must do otherwise. Such moments must be relatively unique, otherwise inconsistency in our organizational leadership will be evident for all to see; but if they are unthinkingly bypassed, our value as a leader may be doubted by everyone, including ourselves."

7- "If you expect those who work for you to exercise their own judgement, provide them with the decision-making experience now."

8- "If you have difficult decisions ot make and insufficient time to explain them, a key to implementation may be loyal allies who are sure to execute them through thick or thin."

9- "A clear sense of common purpose and a well-formed camaraderie are essential ingredients to ensure that your team, your organization, or your company will perform to its utmost when it is most needed."

10- "Expecting high performance is prerequisite to its achievement among those who would with you. Your high standards and optimistic anticipations will not guarantee a favorable outcome, but their absence will assuredly create the opposite."

11- "Recognizing people's diverse motives for participating is an essential first step in mobilizing their contributions. Creating an opportunity for all to succeed - whatever their motives - is an essential second step in harnessing their contributions even when the room at the top is not big enough for all."

12- "Some of today's small actions in mobilizing others may prove of little value, but others may have great results. Since you often cannot know which will later become critical, you cannot afford to avoid or ignore any now."

13- "Buy-in by all those affected by an organization's change hastens its achievement. Consultation with them, engagement of them, and appeals to them are the critical steps for building acceptance of the change."

14- "Inaction can be as damaging to leadership as inept action."

15- "Realizing your leadership potential depends on making a match between your vision and an organization. The challenge is to find the right opportunity, pick the right moment, and make the right move."

16- "Consistent, unrelenting efforts to hear and reconcile diverse positions, even when rooted in deeply entrenched and immensely powerful interests, are prerequisite to overcoming any conflict and mobilizing the resources that the contending parties are withholding."
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on December 31, 2011
I bought this book used for a dollar (hardback discard from a library) so I am not complaining, but the insights gained and flow of the text didn't match the thickness of the book. My favorite section in the book was reading about Joshua Lawerence Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg and defender of Little Round Top. I am fascinated by the little things that one person does which end up being the domino that changes the course of history. Defending Little Round Top was one of those moments, and it was great to get new insights into the leader that did it. For instance, I had no idea that Chamberlain had zero military training or experience prior to signing up to fight in the Civil War. He was a faculty teacher at a college in Maine with two little children. He just felt like it was the right thing to do---so he did it, and within a year of joining he was commanding the Regiment on the far left of the flank defending Little Round Top. At the end of the day, his bold "swinging gate" bayonet charge turned out to be the decisive winning moment of the battle that turned the tide of the war. Fascinating.

At end of the war, Grant chose Chamberlain to be the commanding officer over the ceremony of Lee's surrender and to receive the flag of the South. Not bad for a professor from Maine. You can't make this stuff up.

The best feature of this book is the Leadership Guide that starts on page 273 and runs for 10 pages. On these 10 pages, Useem sums up the key leadership lessons from each of the leaders featured in the book. These leaders are: Roy Vagelos, Wagner Dodge, Eugene Kranz, Arlene Blum, Joshua Chamberlain, Clifton Wharton, John Gutfreund, Nancy Barry, and Alfredo Cristiani.
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on September 1, 1999
Without which there is no real leadership. I thoroughly enjoyed Useem's studies, often cheering along with these leaders. It was so wonderful to observe a professor who understand that there is so much more than mere technique. Thanks!
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on March 14, 2016
Great leadership book. The book is broken down into nine stories. It kept my interest...however, after reading the first couple of chapters, you get what the author is trying to tell you. I recommend it.
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on November 14, 2015
An excellent read. I couldn't put it down. The stories are from leaders and adventures all over the world, giving an in glimpse view of their achievements and failures. I enjoyed learning about different businesses and histories on the economic front.
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on April 19, 2015
This book was dry and difficult to read. I did find some of the stories interesting, but I skimmed most of them. I wouldn't have read this book if it weren't required reading for a leadership class I'm taking.
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on November 30, 2004
As part of an assignment for a Leadership/Small Group Communication course, I was directed to select the book of my choice from an Amazon book search under the topic of leadership. After poring through the descriptions of just a few of the 116,000 books in this category, I quickly identified the type of book I was looking for. I wanted something less academic/theoretical and more real life. I figured any lessons on leadership would be easier to grasp if they accompanied the stories of real people. Michael Useem's The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All fit the bill.

The Leadership Moment is a book of nine stories of real individuals who were faced with leadership challenges or put into positions where their decisions as leaders would greatly affect the outcome or survival of companies, countries and often, many other lives. The stories cover attempts to cure disease, retreating from a fire, returning a malfunctioning spacecraft to earth, ascending a mountain, leading men to battle, restructuring large corporations, the downfall and rise of a large company, working towards development of women in the third world and ending a civil war. Each story identifies a leader put into a critical do or die situation where their decisions and leadership qualities either led to success and meeting objectives, or led to failure and the demise of the company or death of those they were leading.

What I really liked about the book was the real life examples and the vast range of examples that Useem used. While many of us in the corporate world identify leadership as the ability to bring in financial returns or climb the corporate ladder, this book shows how leadership comes up in vastly different situations.

Useem's writing style flows well and is easy to follow. The stories are interesting and descriptive. For each story, he points out several leadership objectives that are implicated in the story. I enjoyed the book, and was able to identify how some of his leadership objectives could apply to my own career. I recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting read on leadership.
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