Putting Reflection into Gear

Putting Reflection into Gear

Be decisive. Michael Useem defines decision making as preparing for, reducing and managing uncertainty. It is a topic that Useem, a professor at Wharton, teaches and writes about, and that he dramatizes through storytelling. To illustrate the point of decisiveness, he tells the story of Gustavus Smith, the second in command to General Joe Johnston during the US Civil War. In late May 1862, Union forces were closing in on Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis rode out to get the firsthand look at the battle. Johnston was felled by a bullet and shrapnel and recommended his number two to take his place. When Davis asked Smith for his strategy to turn back the Union troops, Smith drew a blank. His indecisiveness led to his firing and the appointment of General Robert E Lee, who as we know was a brilliant general and pushed back the federals.

Know your limits. The ability to choose and develop an effective team is an essential leadership trait. For people who depend on team as a matter of life and death, teamwork is the salient edge. Filmmaker David Breashears tells a compelling, and at times harrowing story of scaling Mount Everest to make an IMAX movie of the climb. The story behind the story is one of choosing experienced climbers and savvy technicians who respect nature and will sublimate ego to team when it matters most. Such a moment occurred on May 7, 1996, when the IMAX team was on the mountain. Sensing that the weather was changing, the team decided to head down, forgoing a chance to summit the mountain in order to survive. Good decision. A storm did arise from the base of the mountain, savagely killing a number of climbers and experienced guides on the mountain. Their patience not only saved them, but it also enabled them to remain on the mountain for another two weeks, when they finally made it to the higher elevations and filmed the final stages of the movie, which in turn has become a popular success.

Interaction Makes Reflection Real

What really makes conferences such as Wharton's come alive is the ability to interact with fellow participants. Again, reflection can be an active process that you engage in with others. Conversations with attendees may start with a comment about a presentation, but may lead to a discussion about your own work and perhaps a challenge that you and your team may be facing. Business cards may be exchanged, and in the process networks are formed and learning is shared.

There can also be moments of startling candour that cause you to stop what you are doing and really think. Such a moment occurred to me the evening before the conference. I was in conversation with some South Americans about the topic of resiliency, a theme of this year's conference. In deference to me, a non Spanish speaker, the South Americans were speaking in English and so I was asked to define the term. I defined it as the ability to respond to a setback and come back from defeat. One of the gentlemen added that for him, resiliency (and I am paraphrasing) is the heart that you have to continue when you things may be totally against you. Then he introduced himself as Roberto Canessa, one of the survivors of the Andean plane crash in which members of a Uruguayan rugby team survived for 72 days alone in the mountains; cannibalism was a means of their survival. Then only 19, Canessa, along with his friend, Nando Parrado, climbed down from the mountain and found help. It was a story made famous by the book, Alive, by Piers Paul Read and now retold by Parrado in his new book, The Miracle of the Andes.

Certainly a man such as Canessa, who has survived such an experience as that crash and gone on to become a renowned paediatric cardiologist, knows more than most of us what resilience means and why it is so vital to the human condition. Such perspectives as these serve as touchstones that shape our philosophy that in turn may make us more effective leaders, or at least human beings with a better understanding of the human condition.

I would like to acknowledge presenters in the Tenth Annual Wharton Leadership Conference June 13, 2006. They include Jim Collins, Helen Greiner, Mike Useem, David Breashears and Roberto Canessa. Thank you one and all.

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