Book Review – The Go Point by Michael Useem

Over the past week we have been on a family vacation in Grand Cayman staying in beautiful condo in the Rum Point section of the island and minutes walk away from the beach. This is our first trip here and I can’t recommend it enough. (Blog and photos.)

The Go PointIt’s also a great place to read and I finally had the chance to sit down with Michael Useem’s newest book, The Go Point. I am really interested in his work and enjoyed several of his earlier books including Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits (with Paul Asel), Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win and The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for All of Us.

Michael Useem is the Wiliam and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management.

In October 2005, I had the good fortune to participate in Wharton’s Executive Education Program The Leadership Journey which is lead by Professors Useem and Greg Shea. As its name implies, its is a weeklong intensive experience uniquely exploring leadership from academic and personal perspectives. This was clearly one of the most significant adult learning experiences that I have ever had and I was looking forward to reading The Go Point.

Well, I was not disappointed. I really enjoyed this book and, not surprisingly, part of the reason is that it followed much of the same format and covered similar material as The Leadership Journey.

The full title is The Go Point – When It’s Time to Decide, Knowing What to Do and When to Do It and Useem effectively uses storytelling techniques to explore how decisions are made and to present his case. In the preface, he describes “go points” as “times to decide, moments for saying yes or no, instants for jumping in one direction or another when the fate of others depends on it.” He lays out the book’s objective of “building a decision-making template, the principles and tools for being decisive at times when it really counts: using small steps to make hard decisions, building a network of counselors for testing ideas, keeping options open until they must be closed.” And in the Introduction he defines a go point as – “that decisive moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons weighed and the time has come to get off the fence.’

The author uses a number of interesting and impactful case studies including the July 1994 wildfire on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain which had fatal consequences for 14 wildland firefighters, the Gettysburg Battle of the American Civil War that took more than 50,000 Confederate and Union soldiers lives over 3 days, and the 1972 plane crash in the Andes where 16 passengers survived in the incredibly harsh environment with virtually no resources for 72 days. There are lots of lessons to learn from analyzing the decision chains that lead to the final outcome in each story. Useem uses each to demonstrate the importance of having a decision template “generic enough to apply to many situations, yet specific enough to provide real guidance with real-life choices.”

What has always interested my in Professor Useem’s work is how experience informs leadership and decisionmaking. He states

“(decision) template principles should be rooted in tangible experiences, for that often serves as the most enduring and powerful trigger….My own experience with hands-on-learning as well as volumes of research confirm that principles such as these are best retained and recalled when discovered during moments of intense emotion and acute stress. Embedded in experience, they remain unforgettable.”

Useem and some of his colleagues and students actually took a “staff ride” and visited Storm King Mountain to try to get a better understanding of what the wild firefighters encountered that fateful day and he writes:

“Personal engagements of this kind can cut through the fog of abstraction and connect theory with practice more powerfully than virtually any other learning event….Classrooms are an excellent vehicle for acquiring decision theory; tangible venues are the indelible vehicles for remembering how to apply it.”

My personal experience reinforces this view. One day during The Leadership Journey we boarded a bus at Wharton and drove out to the Gettysburg National Military Park for a full day tour of the battlefield with a certified guide. To stand on Little Round Top or Cemetery Hill is an incredibly emotional, intellectual and spiritual experience. We often feel that our current world is so complex; however, to think about what it would have been like as a battlefield commander with scant information and limited time to act or react is mindboggling.

Chapter 5 – Making Decisions is devoted to the reader actually getting engaged in some decisionmaking exercises. We also performed these at Wharton with my favorite being Necklace Trading. While the author does a great job of explaining these exercises, nothing can compare to the actual process of participation. The book’s website (www.thegopoint.com) actually provides for some reader interaction but I did not try it out.

While Professor Useem is one of the top professors at one of the top business schools in the world, he writes in a very easy to read fashion. Readers don’t encounter any jargon or buzzwords. Instead, he uses storys to effectively and powefully convey his points.

Anyone interested in how leaders make decisions, good and bad, must read this book. It will certainly give the you a lot to think about in how you approach important decisions and how you can improve the process by establishing your own decisionmaking template. 

(NB – All of the books mentioned in this review can be ordered through Amazon.com by clicking on the titles in second paragraph.)

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – The Go Point by Michael Useem”

  1. Hi David;
    Thanks for reading and commenting. Also, thanks for bringing your work into my sights. I look forward to following.
    Re winter in Winnipeg, all the more reason to have Sea-Fever! Grab a copy of The Go Point, jump on a plane and get down to Grand Cayman. Unfortunately, we’re leaving tomorrow. :-(
    Thanks again!

  2. I appreciate your review of the Go Point and enjoyed your blog. Sea-Fever is not much of a concern in Winnipeg as we are smack dab in the middle of Canada…ah the ocean…

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