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Michael Useem: Learning the edge of leadership

"Nothing’s changed!"

That used to be my pat answer when people asked me about what leadership changes I saw. My comment was rooted in the idea that leadership is a people skill and, as such, the way we connect to others is timeless.

Of course, there are some changes. Three factors are globalism, the velocity of change and women in management. Organizations are buffeted by changes that occur in different parts of the world. Sadly, COVID-19 is an archetypal example of something that occurred in a city in China and yet has affected the entire world. Change is perpetual and, via technology, occurring at breakneck speed. Women in leadership bring a new understanding of connectivity, which more broadly speaking embraces diversity, equity and inclusion of people different from ourselves.

Challenging assumptions of leadership

This concept forms a backdrop to a new book by Wharton professor and author Michael Useem — "The Edge: How 10 CEOs Learned to Lead—and the Lessons for Us All." The edge, as Useem defines it, focuses on how leaders need to do things differently.

As Useem explained to me in a recent interview, what worked in 2015 will not work in 2025. That's where the subtitle enters: “learning to lead.”

That concept is arresting. A CEO learning to lead? Really? Aren’t they already leaders? The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that senior leaders must innovate simply for their service or product lines but for how they shape the culture they lead.

Useem notes how he borrowed some of the concepts from what globally recognized executive coach Marshall Goldsmith presented in his book "What Got You Here Won’t Get You There." While Goldsmith's focus was on the individual, Useem's lens is the organization. Leaders must push for change if the organization wishes to do more than be competitive and relevant to consumers and potential employees.

The challenge is that a CEO’s span of influence is becoming more expansive. For example, senior executives must “make certain that marketing connects with engineering. Or that the people in operations and sales can work with those who are working” in other parts of the world.

Learning outside “the home”

One thing Useem brings to leadership is his legacy of exploration. At Wharton, Useem has brought leaders together from many different disciplines: the military, business, nonprofits and the arts. Useem calls this process learning lessons away from home. “We often learn as much about ourselves by looking far away than from close in. … And often, by looking away from home, we are more persuaded of what it's important at home" because it happened first somewhere else.

Useem adds: "Equally important is that in looking for some of the better ideas on how to lead the practice, the emerging practices on how to get things done, they are everywhere. So we just got to look out there for them."

Dealing with doubt

As much as things change, however, some things remain the same. One of which is self-doubt. Use tells the story of George Washington taking command of the Continental Army in 1775.

"I do not feel myself equal to the Command," he said during his "acceptance" speech. He reportedly confided to fellow Virginian Patrick Henry: "From the day I enter upon command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of reputation."

Washington even wrote a letter to his brother confessing that he would be happier if "I had taken my musket upon my shoulder and entered the ranks.”

Doubt, I believe, is a governor on our ego. Having them keeps us in touch with ourselves. And fortunately, Washington did not become paralyzed with doubt. The lesson for leaders is that they must become learners.

"Through a combination of listening to direct reports and learning from setbacks," Useem writes in his book, “Washington mastered a world he had come of age in and prevailed over it.” Specifically, Washington “found that success [comes] by learning to lead at his edge, even it took him years to do so.

So, while the context of leadership is fast evolving, not everything leaders do happens swiftly. Much of leadership is a process of deliberation: connecting with others, listening carefully, thinking strategically and then acting decisively

John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership speaker, certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, and author of 15 books that have been translated into 10 languages. In 2021, the International Federation of Learning and Development named Baldoni a World-Class Mentor and named him to its Hall of Fame. Also in 2021, Global Gurus ranked him a Top 20 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2018, Inc.com named him a Top 100 speaker, and in 2014 Inc.com listed him as a Top 50 leadership expert.

Baldoni’s books include "Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World," "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us," and "MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership." For more information about Baldoni’s speaking and coaching, please visit his website.

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