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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.

Appraise the past to build the future

Question: Like U.S. presidents, military and non-profit leaders often face the equivalent of "midterm elections" in which they and their strategies are subject to an initial market test or performance evaluation. What's the first thing President Obama, or any leader, should do or say when confronted with unambiguously negative results from a mid-course evaluation?

Whatever the specific outcome of the midterm election, President Obama would do well to conduct what the armed services, civilian agencies and many organizations term an after-action review.

The essence of the review is to ask what went well, what did not go well and what can be done better. It requires a gathering of the key players who are ready to conduct an unflinching assessment of past actions, all with an eye to improving future actions. A review of recent decisions--both good and bad--can serve as a natural curriculum for avoiding new mistakes.

By way of illustration, several summers ago I witnessed a fire crew in action against a raging blaze in Yosemite National Park. The incident commander, operations director, planning chief and a dozen responsible firefighters gathered every evening to study the day's decisions and decide on the next day's actions.

After reviewing the events of the day--where had the firefighters made progress, what new threats was the fire creating, how were the teams deployed--one of the participants would pose four questions: What had been planned for the day? What actually happened during the day? Why did that happen? And what should be done tomorrow? From their answers, crew leaders recurrently refashioned their strategy to better reflect the evolving threats of the wildfire.

There is no better avenue for swift strengthening of one's leadership than to uncompromisingly review the immediate past. If President Obama and his team can dissect what went well and what did not in the first two years, their leadership of the second two will be far better for it.

By Michael Useem

 |  November 1, 2010; 6:13 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Corporate leadership , Government leadership , Leadership development , Making mistakes , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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