Michael Useem

Professor, Wharton School, University Of Pennsylvania

Leadership development; interactive focus on decision making.

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Michael Useem helps leaders develop the capabilities required for making good and timely decisions in unpredictable and stressful environments, in moments when leadership really matters.

He is a coauthor of the new book titled Leadership Dispatches: Chile's Extraordinary Comeback from Disaster. Michael, with Howard Kunreuther and Erwann Michel-Kerjan, look at how Chile's leaders — in government, business, religion, academia, and beyond — facilitated the nations recovery after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

His other books include, The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles, the first e-book by Wharton Digital Press, The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide — Knowing What to Do and When to Do It and The Leadership Moment, one of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, by 800 CEO Read, and listed as one of the 10 best leadership books on The Washington Post column The Leadership Playlist.

Michael also coauthored Boards That Lead, based on personal interviews and working with executives from the world’s largest firms, including Apple, Boeing, Ford, Infosys, and Lenovo. And he is a coauthor of Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response and The India Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management.

Useem is an excellent speaker with a trademark interactive approach based on the stories of real crisis events. He truly engages his audiences, drawing them more deeply into their own leadership potential. He also leads an annual leadership trek to Mount Everest.

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

Trademark Approach — The Leadership Moment
Michael’s programs are extremely effective at developing deeper decision-making resources in leaders. He presents true stories of management and leadership challenges—from the White House to the boardroom, from the trading floor to firefighting to mountaineering.

He brings the audience right up to the crucial leadership moment in the story, then engages the audience interactively to propose possible solutions.

Finally, he compares the participants’ ideas to the real decisions and outcomes of the moment and analyzes the resulting themes.

The result: lessons that managers can apply to their own situations in a practical way.

The Go Point
Through stories and action-oriented tools, Michael Useem shows how to get to go point — when it’s time to get off the fence, say yes or no, and jump the right way.

Whether you’re in the middle of a raging forest fire leading a crew whose lives depend on you or taking over a small but thriving new startup, the ability to make a decision — to reach the go point and know how and when to act — is your most important skill. In The Go Point, Michael Useem shows you how.

Michael uses a diverse group of stories — about a range of leaders from Civil War hero Major General Pickett to the CEO of Hewlett-Packard — to illustrate his point about the importance of timely action. He gets into their heads as they face their moments of truth, revealing how they made decisions when the stakes were really high. The Go Point shows you how to master the art and science of being decisive, teaching you to use small steps to make hard decisions, build a network of trusted counselors, and consider the future when making decisions.

In The Go Point presentation, Michael Useem offers invaluable tools for people in positions of leadership, not just in business but in almost every endeavor in their personal and professional lives.


  • William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Teaches MBA and executive MBA courses on leadership and change management
  • Offers programs for managers in the U.S., Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
  • Edits the monthly electronic bulletin, Wharton Leadership Digest
  • Directs an annual leadership trek to Mount Everest


Leadership Dispatches

Chile's Extraordinary Comeback from Disaster

Michael Useem, Howard Kunreuther and Erwann Michel-Kerjan

On February 27, 2010, Chile was rocked by a violent earthquake five hundred times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti just six weeks prior. The Chilean earthquake devastated schools, hospitals, roads, and homes, paralyzing the country for weeks and causing economic damage that was equal to 18 percent of Chile's GDP. This calamity hit just as an incumbent political regime was packing its bags and a new administration was preparing to take office. For most countries, it would have taken years, if not decades, to recover from such an event. Yet, only one year later, Chile's economy had reached a six percent annual growth rate.

In Leadership Dispatches, Michael Useem, Howard Kunreuther, and Erwann Michel-Kerjan look at how the nation's leaders — in government, business, religion, academia, and beyond — facilitated Chile's recovery. They attribute Chile's remarkable comeback to a two-part formula consisting of strong national leadership on the one hand, and deeply rooted institutional practices on the other. Coupled with strategic, deliberative thinking, these levers enabled Chile to bounce back quickly and exceed its prior national performance. The authors make the case that the Chilean story contains lessons for a broad range of organizations and governments the world over.

Large-scale catastrophes of many kinds — from technological meltdowns to disease pandemics — have been on the rise in recent years. Now is the time to seek ideas and guidance from other leaders who have triumphed in the wake of a disaster. In this vein, Leadership Dispatches is both a remarkable story of resilience and an instructive look at how those with the greatest responsibility for a country, company, or community should lead.

Stanford Business Books (March 11, 2015)


"Leadership Dispatches is an empowering story of recovery in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster. This comprehensive study provides valuable insights into the importance of leadership in a crisis, as well as the world of preparedness and resiliency."
— Tom Ridge, First Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Former Governor of Pennsylvania

"Three of the world's most respected authorities in leadership and risk management join forces to tell us a rare story of courage, determination, and the importance of a multi-stakeholder strategy. Their unique checklist for leaders will prepare many heads of state and organizations to take charge and do the impossible when their own F-27 hits. A remarkable book."
— Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman, World Economic Forum

"Recent disasters in Chile, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and New Zealand offer important lessons for the future. This book brilliantly documents concrete experiences in managing risk and responding to disaster; it contributes to longstanding efforts of organizations like the OECD to distill best practices and create a vital platform for knowledge sharing."
— Angel Gurria, Secretary General, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

"This book is filled with practical analysis of what went right in Chile's dramatic recovery from the devastating F27 earthquake. It offers important lessons for current and future leaders in countries and organizations that face the possibility of major disruptions. Read this book before disaster strikes! And if you haven't, then read it when crisis hits. It provides the best roadmap that you will find toward the future that you will then be hoping for."
— Herman ("Dutch") Leonard, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School

Boards That Lead

When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Stay Out of the Way

by Ram Charan, Dennis Carey and Michael Useem

Change is coming. Leadership at the top is being redefined as boards take a more active role in decisions that once belonged solely to the CEO. But for all the advantages of increased board engagement, it can create debilitating questions of authority and dangerous meddling in day-to-day operations. Directors need a new road map — for when to lead, when to partner, and when to stay out of the way.

Boardroom veterans Ram Charan, Dennis Carey, and Michael Useem advocate this new governance model — a sharp departure from what has been demanded by governance activists, raters, and regulators — and reveal the emerging practices that are defining shared leadership of directors and executives. Based on personal interviews and the authors’ broad and deep experience working with executives and directors from dozens of the world’s largest firms, including Apple, Boeing, Ford, Infosys, and Lenovo, Boards That Lead tells the inside story behind the successes and pitfalls of this new leadership model and explains how to:

  • Define the central idea of the company
  • Ensure that the right CEO is in place and potential successors are identified
  • Recruit directors who add value
  • Root out board dysfunction
  • Select a board leader who deftly bridges the divide between management and the board
  • Set a high bar on ethics and risk

With a total of eighteen checklists that will transform board directors from monitors to leaders, Charan, Carey, and Useem provide a smart and practical guide for businesspeople everywhere — whether they occupy the boardroom or the C-suite.

Harvard Business Review Press (December 10, 2013)


ReviewThe Wall Street Journal


“The summarized action points at the end of each chapter allows busy readers to takeaway key thoughts to chew on at their own time of reflection.”
— BusinessLeadershipManagement (BLM), The Executives Magazine

“Leadership at the top is being redefined as boards take a more active role in decisions that once belonged solely to the CEO. Ram Charan, Dennis Carey and Michael Useem advocate a new governance model and reveal the emerging practices that are defining shared leadership of directors and executives. With a total of eighteen checklists that will transform board directors from monitors to leaders, Charan, Carey and Useem provide a smart and practical guide for business people everywhere — whether they occupy the boardroom or the C-suite.”
— Strategic Management Bureau (UK)

Boards That Lead provides the essential road map for corporate leadership. With gripping accounts and compelling illustrations, Charan, Carey, and Useem show how directors can lead in strategic partnership with company executives. This is a game changer, required reading for all who seek to bring out the best in their boards.”
— Alan Mulally, CEO and President, Ford Motor Company

“This book shows how, through leading, partnering, and delegating, boards are now starting to shape the architecture of the company in unprecedented ways. This book is rich with stories—there is nothing like learning from three world-leading practitioners on advancing board capabilities to get the company to raise its game.”
— Fred Hassan, Managing Director (Healthcare), Warburg Pincus; Chairman and director, Bausch + Lomb; former Chairman and CEO, Schering-Plough; former lead director, Avon Products; director, Time Warner

Boards That Lead offers an illuminating road map for how a board of directors can effectively engage and motivate its corporate management team to successfully navigate even the most complex of situations. This book should be on the ‘must-read’ list of every corporate board member and senior executive.”
— Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., President and CEO, TIAA-CREF

“This research, complete with compelling anecdotes and practical information, brilliantly explores how creative, flexible, and innovative processes provide the foundation for long-term, sustainable partnerships between the board and the companies they serve. This work captures the true innovation intended to guide the leadership mandate for any board.”
— Ivan G. Seidenberg, former Chairman and CEO, Verizon Communications; former Chairman, Business Roundtable

Boards That Lead is chock full of real-world examples that directors can use to improve their leadership and decision making — an impressive one-stop shop outlining board member roles, responsibilities, and actions, including the boundaries that boards and companies often fail to recognize. The checklists for putting this advice into action are comprehensive and practical — the best I have seen.”
— Maggie Wilderotter, Chairman and CEO, Frontier Communications; director, Procter & Gamble and Xerox Corporation

The Leader's Checklist

15 Mission-Critical Principles

Michael Useem

From the award-winning author of The Leadership Moment comes a definitive checklist to help today’s leaders act decisively when it counts the most.

In this fast-reading and illuminating book, world-renowned leadership expert Michael Useem provides 15 guiding principles that form the core of the Leader’s Checklist. He helps you to personalize your checklist to the unique needs and demands of your organization. To demonstrate the power of the Leader’s Checklist, Useem examines accounts of extraordinary leadership, including the triumphant rescue of 33 miners in Chile.

Based on solid research and years of working on leadership development with a wide array of companies and organizations in the United States and abroad, The Leader’s Checklist will help you develop your ability to make good and timely decisions in unpredictable and stressful environments — for those moments when leadership really matters.

Wharton Digital Press (June 21, 2001)


"The Leader’s Checklist is one of the most brilliant, original, and exciting leadership books I’ve read in a long time. On top of all that, it will be the most useful and concise book on leadership you’ll ever read!"
— Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business, University of Southern California, and author of Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership

The India Way

How India's Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management

Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh, and Michael Useem

This title offers innovative management practice from India's leading companies and what companies everywhere can learn from it. For much of the last century, the practice of management was dominated by Western, particularly U.S., models. Even economies emerging in the latter part of the century evolved toward the Western paradigm. But today, we see a distinct model of management developing in India and, so far, it has been remarkably successful. India's top companies are growing at staggering rates and doing so with an innovative and vibrant set of management practices — especially in strategy, leadership, governance, talent and organizational culture. Not bound to Western thinking or practice, Indian leaders are creating a new model for leading and running companies. And just as American managers turned to Japan in the past for innovative management methods, they can now look to India for what it takes to build fast, flexible and lean enterprises. Written by the Wharton India Team (talent guru Peter Cappelli, strategy gurus Harbir Singh and Jitendra Singh and leadership guru Michael Useem) and based on decades of experience consulting and teaching in India along with over 100 interviews of the heads of India's largest companies, this book closely examines what Indian managers do differently and how their management innovations work, which of these innovations could be transferable to the Western context and ultimately how this new management model could one day modify or even supplant the old.

Harvard Business Press (March 16, 2010)


India's new management modelFinancial Times
Managing 'the India way'The Philadelphia Inquirer
The India WayHarvard Business Review

Learning from Catastrophes

Strategies for Reaction and Response

Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem

Events ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the global economic crisis have taught businesspeople an unforgettable lesson: if you don’t plan for “extreme risk,” you endanger your organization’s very survival. But how can you plan for events that go far beyond anything that occurs in normal day-to-day business? In Learning from Catastrophes, two renowned experts present the first comprehensive strategic framework for assessing, responding to, and managing extreme risk. Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem build on their own breakthrough work on mitigating natural disasters, extending it to the challenges faced by real-world enterprises.

Along with the contributions of leading experts in risk management, heuristics, and disaster recovery, they identify the behavioral biases and faulty heuristics that mislead decision makers about the likelihood of catastrophe. They go on to identify the hidden links associated with extreme risks, and present techniques for systematically building greater resilience into the organization. The global best-seller The Black Swan told executives that “once in a lifetime” events are far more common and dangerous than they ever realized. Learning from Catastrophe shows them exactly what to do about it.

Prentice Hall (July 19, 2013)
Pearson Prentice Hall; 1 edition (November 26, 2009)

The Go Point

When It’s Time to Decide — Knowing What to Do and When to Do It

Michael Useem

The Go Point — the moment of truth when you have to say “yes” or “no” when it’s time to get off the fence.

Michael Useem — through dramatic storytelling — shows how to master the art and science of being decisive. He places you smack in the middle of people facing their go point, where actions — or lack of them — determined the fates of individuals, companies, and countries.

  • Why on earth did Robert E. Lee send General George Pickett on an almost suicidal charge against the Union lines at Gettysburg?
  • How does the leader of a firefighting crew make life-or-death decisions, directing his people — with little information about weather patterns to guide him — to go up or down the mountain? One direction means safety, the other danger.
  • You’ve just assumed responsibility for a scandal-wracked corporation, a company teetering on the brink of disaster. What you decide over the course of the next several days will have consequences for thousands of employees and investors. How do you fulfill your responsibilities?

Michael Useem makes you feel as if “you are there,” right in the center of the action. He was there: tramping up and down the mountain where firefighters made their momentous decisions; walking the battlefield at Gettysburg to see for himself just what General Pickett faced before making his ill-fated charge; going into a trading pit where million-dollar buy-and-sell decisions are made that affect fortunes of both the firm and the person making the call.

You’ll discover why some decisions were flawless, perfectly on target, and others utterly disastrous. Most of all, you’ll learn how to make the right calls yourself, whether you’re changing your career, hiring an assistant, launching a product, or deciding on a potential acquisition or merger.

Smartly written and offering unusual insights into the minds of decision makers such as General Lee, The Go Point will provide the guidance for you to move with confidence when it’s your turn to get off the fence.

Crown Business, October 2006

Upward Bound

Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits

Michael Useem

Your team has faltered at a critical moment. A key member says he can't continue, requiring you to make a snap decision: Do you write him off? Or do you risk the whole venture by trying to get him back on his feet? It could be a scenario straight from the business world. Yet this one occurred high on the slopes of the world's deadliest mountain, K2, where lives, not just livelihoods, depended on the leader's choice. Decisions don't get much starker. That's why mountains — though seemingly a world apart from business — hold unique and surprising insights for managers and entrepreneurs at any altitude. More than just symbols of our upward strivings, they are high-altitude management laboratories: testing grounds where risk, fear, opportunity, and ambition collide in the most unforgiving of settings.

Upward Bound brings together a remarkable team of nine writers equally at home among the high peaks and in the corridors of corporate power, including Good to Great author Jim Collins, legendary climber and outdoor clothing entrepreneur Royal Robbins, and Stacy Allison, the first American woman to summit Mount Everest. While most people will never find themselves in the thin air of the world's highest places, Upward Bound brings those places down to earth for anyone seeking the path to his or her own summit. Whether it's up the career ladder or toward a creative peak, Upward Bound addresses the fundamental question of why we climb, while capturing the power of mountains to instruct as well as inspire.

Crown Business, September 2003

Leading up

How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win

Michael Useem

Today’s best leaders know how to lead up, a necessary strategy when a supervisor is micromanaging rather than macrothinking, when a division president offers clear directives but can’t see the future, or when investors demand instant gain but need long-term growth. Through vivid, compelling stories, Michael Useem reveals how upward leadership can transform incipient disaster into hard-won triumph. For example, U.S. Marine Corps General Peter Pace reconciled the conflicting priorities of six bosses by keeping them well informed and challenging their instructions when necessary. Useem also explores what happens when those who should step forward fail to do so — Mount Everest mountaineers might have saved themselves from disaster during a fateful ascent if only they had questioned their guides’ flawed decisions.

Leading Up is a call to action. It asks us to get results by helping our superiors lead and by building on the best in everybody’s nature, and it offers a pragmatic blueprint for doing so.

Crown Business (October 2001)

The Leadership Moment

Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All

Michael Useem

Are you ready for the leadership moment?

  • Merck's Roy Vagelos commits millions of dollars to develop a drug needed only by people who can't afford it
  • Eugene Kranz struggles to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home after an explosion rips through their spacecraft
  • Arlene Blum organizes the first women's ascent of one of the world's most dangerous mountains
  • Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leads his tattered troops into a pivotal Civil War battle at Little Round Top
  • John Gutfreund loses Salomon Brothers when his inattention to a trading scandal almost topples the Wall Street giant
  • Clifton Wharton restructures a $50 billion pension system direly out of touch with its customers
  • Alfredo Cristiani transforms El Salvador's decade-long civil war into a negotiated settlement
  • Nancy Barry leads Women's World Banking in the fight against Third World poverty - Wagner Dodge faces the decision of a lifetime as a fast-moving forest fire overtakes his firefighting crew

Crown Business (September 1998)


Michael tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

Leading Through Challenging Times

The Chilean mining minister watched as the cave-in victims emerged unscathed, along with an estimated billion television viewers. A rescue crew had toiled around the clock for more than two months to retrieve the 33 below, but direct responsibility for their recovery ultimately resided in just one person, Chile’s minister of mines. In his decisions that guided the rescue are instructive implications for all who face exceptionally challenging leadership moments.

Focusing on difficult decisions in uncertain times, Michael Useem identifies what it takes for making timely calls when leadership matters most. He draws upon a range of instructive events — ranging from fateful management decisions in Chinese and Indian companies to the miner- rescue decisions in Chile to the front-line decisions of firefighters and mountain climbers — to construct a template for leading through stressful times.

The Go Point: When It’s Time to Decide

Moments of decision are those times when an individual, team, or organization faces a tangible opportunity to go one way or another. And ultimately, every decision comes down to a go point — that moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons are weighed, and the time has come to get off the fence. Decisions at such points are at the heart of leadership and a driver of organizational performance.

Drawing on the decision moments of a range of company leaders, corporate directors — and even mountaineers on Mt. Everest, firefighters in the wilderness, and generals at Gettysburg — Michael Useem identifies what it takes for making timely calls when leadership really matters.


Boards are muscling in



A major financial services firm:
The session went well. Mike did a good job of co-teaching with one of our internal leaders, which is not always an easy thing to do. But the hand-offs and the back-and-forth went very well.

A producer of specialty metals:
He did an outstanding job! Everyone really enjoyed his presentation. Thanks for all of your help in getting Mike to speak at our event. It was a great experience.

A global organizational leadership development company:

  • It was amazing
  • coolest man in America
  • logistics worked out perfectly
  • client loved it
  • he played off it (the medium)
  • was such a success, we will probably replicate it
  • easiest speaker I have ever worked with in my life.

A university-sponsored business leaders event:
The breakfast was great. Packed house. Michael was a real diversion from the more politically oriented-social commentator types we have had in recent years so it was a bit of an unknown how it would go over. The predominantly business men/women audience really responded to him. He held a "class" for 900 people, had interaction with the audience, it was great. Went over wonderfully well. We're hearing great comments from our guests.


— The Globe and Mail
— Philly.com
— Knowledge@Wharton
— The Globe and Mail
— Wharton Magazine
— The New York Times
— The Globe and Mail
— strategy+business
— The Globe and Mail
— Harvard Business Review
— Livemint
— Harvard Business Review
— The Globe and Mail
— Harvard Business Review
— Knowledge@Wharton
— Harvard Business Review
— Harvard Business Review
— The New Open Forum
— Knowledge@Wharton
— Knowledge@Wharton Today

"Most Medals of Honor have been bestowed for acts of extreme leadership. Very few of us will ever face the choice of whether or not to use our own bodies to shield a comrade from a lethal blast. Yet the narratives, absorbing and inspiring in their own right, offer an indelible lesson on the essence of leadership.

For most of us, most of the time, private self-interest is well aligned with organizational purpose. At rare but critical moments, however, when common purpose and personal interest diverge, we see leadership put to its supreme test, sometimes requiring a split-second decision. And when transcendent purpose trumps individual self-interest, we see the ultimate test and triumph of leadership..."