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Review: “The Leader’s Checklist, 15 Mission-Critical Principles”

4 min read


I like checklists, even for subjects that we think will not lend themselves to itemized suggestions. Namely leadership.

That’s why I find “The Leader’s Checklist, 15 Mission-Critical Principles” by Michael Useem, so rewarding.  The principles are culled from research and teaching that Useem, a professor at the Wharton School, has conducted in global leadership programs on four continents.

In an e-mail interview, Useem, who is a colleague, wrote, “I have also become convinced that with leadership, as with much else, brevity is the soul of wit. ‘The Leader’s Checklist’ is at its best when it is as bare-bones as possible, though not more so.”

The principles are practical: Articulate the vision, think and act strategically and take charge. But they are also people-centric: Honor the room (express confidence in colleagues), communicate and motivate. Others look ahead: Build leadership in others and build a diverse team. They are also rooted in reality: Place common interest first, dampen over-optimism and manage relations (personal ties).

Two things bring these principles to life. One is Useem’s storytelling ability. He tells a swiftly paced narrative of the role that Laurence Golborne, Chile’s mining minister, played in the rescue of his fellow countrymen in October. Golborne, as Useem presents him, was a straight talker; he told the miners’ families that the odds were against rescue but he was also one who took charge.

Golborne removed the mine’s owner from the rescue operation and assigned an engineer to organize the rescue. Golborne exhorted, “You have to take charge.” This focus on the technical side got things rolling in an organized fashion. It also helped to depoliticize rivalries as well as gave the rescue operation the greatest chance of success.

The other virtue in this book is customization. In short, not every leader will need to heed every item on the checklist. Useem presents several factors that alter the landscape of their implementation: the leader’s company; the leader’s role; and the leader’s country. Two other factors also affect a leader’s action.

The first is the moment, what is happening. As Useem writes, “What is needed in hard times is different from the requisite list for good times.” Sometimes the impetus for action is the proverbial burning platform. Or the moment can be stasis; what does a leader do to effect change.

The second qualifier is something Useem calls “personal place.” That is what the leader is doing at the moment. Useem cites a few examples: a commanding officer on patrol in Afghanistan; a firefighter battling forest blaze; or more prosaically, selling — what you need to do sell effectively.

“Customized checklists are required for distinct times and contexts,” Useem told me, “whether leading in moments of stress or change, leading companies or communities, or leading in the U.S., India, or China.”

“The Leader’s Checklist” concludes with a personal favorite of mine, one that I have cited in my own teaching — Joshua Chamberlain’s command of the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox in April 1865. Chamberlain, the hero of Little Roundtop at Gettysburg, was wounded six times and once gravely, but he had the presence of mind, and more importantly the goodness of heart and soul to implement the 15th principle on the leadership checklist: “Place Common Interest First.”

When the Confederate troops passed in front of the Union forces, Chamberlain and his men saluted their adversaries, who were once again their countrymen.

Leaders often work well by operating on gut instinct, but at times they need to reflect on their actions and their consequences. “The Leader’s Checklist” can refresh a leader’s sense of purpose as well as invigorate his or her calling to lead others.