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Transcript: How does leadership fare under stress

Take stock of yourself if you find that you're in a career rut.

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KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for the Globe & Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Michael Useem who is a senior professor at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.

Mike, we've gone through a tough recession, we aren't entirely out of it, and we aren't sure about the future. [It's]stressful and difficult times, what is your research telling us about leadership under stress?

MICHAEL USEEM – We have sought to answer that question in several different ways. One way we have approached that question is to watch people under a lot of stress. So we worked on firefighting going in to fight a fire, whether they are in the city or in the wilderness. We, number two, have talked in depth with people who have really been through the ringer and are willing to reflect on what it took to get through a really hard period. At the height of the crisis in the U.S., it didn't hit Canada quite as much as we were hit here in the U.S., we interviewed 14 CEO's of big American firms – Procter and Gamble, Tyco, and well beyond – and we simply asked the question, "What has it taken your company, as huge as they are under an extraordinary down draft, through that period?" Six elements came out, let me mention just one and then I'll offer up a different way we answer that question. All 14 CEO's said that it has been vital in the early months of '09 - Lehman failed back in September '08 and the stock market went down enormously in many countries - that they said it was vital to remind people why those companies are on earth, what is their purpose and what they are doing. "We are going to get through this but let's just stay focused on ultimately what our purpose is – providing great products and getting a return for investors." Another way in which we have sought to find ideas we can take out for a setting, that will be useful for people looking at a tough circumstance, is to do a deep dive into somebody's experience who has touched the void and who has looked off the cliff. The example we have spent a considerable amount of time in the last couple of months looking at is the rescue of the 33 miners that were trapped 2000 feet below in Chile. The person who took charge of that rescue was the Chilean Minister of Mines, age 49, Laurence Golborne. He came out of retail; he ran a big retail store before becoming Minister of Mines. When he got word, in the summer of 2010, he was on a business trip, actually a government trip, with the president when his smart phone came to life and said, "Cave up in the Atacama Desert, 33 trapped." Now, it's a private mine, he is a regulator and not a take-charge kind of guy by constitution, but that did not stop him from flying back form this location and within a couple of days he concluded that the only way these miners were coming out would be if he was willing to take charge, with all the upside if it worked and with all the potential downside if it did not. What we have learned from him, watching him as he just had to invent the way forward, was that (again this is really for the leaders checklist here) in a position of responsibility, even if it doesn't say it in your job description, you can make a difference. The leadership calling is don't step back, take a step forward, get into the game, and take charge.

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