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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.

Convey Your Character

Both experience and research repeatedly confirm that people are drawn to leaders who offer a powerful vision and a pragmatic strategy for achieving it. Followers are all the more drawn when leaders also convey their character. What are their defining values? What have been their formative moments? Who exactly are they?

It is for this reason that Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father" proved so important in his campaign for the White House. That is why company executives provide a personal story when opening a meeting the rank and file. It explains why German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to remind a large audience, of which I was a part, that she had grown up in East Germany. It accounts for the oft-made observation that Abraham Lincoln became one of the country's greatest president despite - or maybe even because of - his log-cabin origins.

Prospective followers do not want to hear their leaders' remarkable resume or list of laurels. They do want to know their leaders' inner fabric. If personal histories are perceived as self-serving or conceited, all is lost. If received as a window on an appealing temperament, much can be gained.

A touch of self-deprecating humor helps. That is why we sometime hear the equivalent of British Prime Minister's Winston Churchill's response to his wife's comment in July, 1945 that his electoral defeat could be blessing in disguise. "If this is a blessing," he said, "it is certainly very well disguised." In campaigning for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan noted that Thomas Jefferson once observed, "One should not worry about chronological age compared to the ability to perform the task." Ever "since Thomas Jefferson told me that," Reagan quipped, "I stopped worrying about my age."

Personal histories are inherently part of our leadership persona, and everybody wants to hear them. The art of leadership is to express them briefly - and to tell them well.

By Michael Useem

 |  June 8, 2009; 11:42 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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