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Michael Useem

Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Critical Moments

This post is In response to the following question:
As the heroic Capt. Richard Phillips reminded us when he offered himself to the pirates instead of his crew, sea captains, like all good leaders, are expected to sacrifice themselves and their personal interests to protect those under their command. What are other examples from other fields of endeavor of leaders who have succeeded or failed to live up to this obligation? What factors should leaders consider when deciding when and whether to make extraordinary personal sacrifices?
The definition of leadership says it all: Leadership is the act of helping others to achieve shared goals. It is not about the pay or perquisites of high office. The latter are important to most office holders, but they are not about the leadership of the office holders.

On most days of our lives, what is good for the organization is good for us too. If we perform well, so too does the enterprise, and vice versa. But there are times when collective purpose and self-interest diverge, and it is at those times that the qualities of leadership become most evident.

In volunteering to become a hostage in place of his shipmates, Captain Richard Phillips has reminded us how much we admire actions that place mission first and oneself last when the two diverge. He put his life at risk so that the lives of his crew members would not be at risk. It was a moment of leadership that met the very definition of leadership.

In the an era where a culture of self-interest and its aggressive pursuit had come to dominate so many organizations, the good captain's decision helps us appreciate just how little self-sacrificing behavior we have otherwise witnessed in recent years. Too many executives were drawing unconscionable pay packages at the very time that their companies were at risk or worse. Whether on the bridge of a ship or in the office of an executives, making mission first would seem to be a starting foundation for anybody's leadership.

By Michael Useem

 |  April 14, 2009; 7:14 AM ET
Category:  Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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