Seize your moment

Mar 20, 2022

Three lessons learned from stories of leaders’ successes and failures – and their ramifications.

Leadership is easily understood and described in abstract terms. A leader is someone who steps to the front of a crowd, who inspires, who influences, who can shape and steer the opinion of others. But for the concept of leadership to truly resonate, for it to go beyond the realm of hypotheticals and academic constructs, you need to understand the significance of its real-world context and ramifications – and why taking that step forward to lead is so often life-changing.

That is, in brief, why I’m writing today about The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All by Michael Useem. In this book, in these stories of success and failure, there are examples of how the course of history has been determined by how individuals responded to the challenges placed before them.

These are a few of the lessons that have stuck with me:

  1. Collaborate with the best. Fifty-five hours after Apollo 13 lifted off on April 11, 1970, a 36-year-old engineer named Eugene Kranz found that the eyes of the world were fixed on him. An oxygen tank aboard the shuttle had exploded, resulting in the loss of the command module’s normal supply of electricity, light, and water – 200,000 miles from earth. In short, the question quickly became: How do we get them home? As Useem notes, as flight director, Kranz had the final call on any decision made. The burden of those lives was on him.
    But he wasn’t alone. The reason for Kranz’s success is that he had some of the nation’s greatest minds beside him, all of them working in tandem to bring Apollo 13 home safely. While it’s true most of us won’t experience pressure of this magnitude, there is a parallel. The reason we hire the smartest people we can find at Garver is that, as engineers, we are providing a service that has enormous stakes. That collaboration is at the heart of our work – and it’s why we consider ourselves our clients’ most trusted advisor.
  2. Communicate your “why.” Another lesson I have learned from this book is that poor communication will lead to failure. In the story about Wagner Dodge, we hear about a man who “was facing the moment, the decision of a lifetime. A fast-moving forest-and-grass fire was about to overrun the 15 firefighters under his command … They were running for their lives, and Dodge knew their time was running out.”
    I won’t spoil the story, but I will say this: In Wagner Dodge, we find a remarkably capable leader of steel nerves – but his poor communication skills are his tragic flaw. You must communicate the “why” of your direction. You need to connect the people with the purpose of the task. You cannot be a leader if you just act like that parent who says, “Do it because I said so.” That is not leadership. Leadership is built on credibility – and the trust that your people have in you.
  3. Build your leadership bank account. Although many of the stories share some of the same lessons and takeaways, something that I’d argue is common to them all is this: No matter whether these stories deal with a pivotal Civil War battle or the development of a drug to combat malaria, they all deal with the rise and fall of trust and credibility – what I like to call a “leadership bank account.” What I mean is this: Every action you take throughout the day – the timbre of your voice in a meeting, the confidence you exude during a conversation, whether you’re on time for a meeting – either makes a deposit or takes a withdrawal from your account, causing it to increase or decrease for a given individual or group of people.
    The accumulated interest of that account determines whether someone might be willing to follow you. You might propose a solution to a problem that sounds somewhat odd to those people you work with – but if you’ve made the necessary deposits and built a long track record of coming up with good solutions, they’ll more than likely follow you to the end. Leadership is a product of both today’s actions and yesterday’s groundwork. 

Jerry Holder, P.E., is senior vice president and director of transportation at Garver. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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