A Case of Late-Blooming Leadership

Prof. Michael Useem at work during his 2013 Wharton MBA Lifelong Learning master class

Prof. Michael Useem at work during his 2013 Wharton MBA Reunion master class. Photo credits: Shira Yudkoff.

How did that MBA student sneak into the class? Perhaps “sneak” is too strong a description, for the unnamed student, when he unveiled himself, earned praise and good-humored laughter from alumni in attendance at Mike Useem’s Lifelong Learning master class during Wharton’s 2013 MBA Reunion.

Launching into the sort of interactivity that alumni have come to expect from Wharton Lifelong Learning programming, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management asked the class to break into small groups and discuss people they knew who blossomed from mid-management to career leadership later in life. Then Useem reconvened the class and began calling on alumni around the room to share their discussions. As Useem said, he likes to put the “squeeze” on attendees.

The MBA student raised his hand and revealed himself—and then shared the illuminating story of a former boss at Goldman Sachs who had been managing a successful unit when he volunteered to launch a new 4,000-person operation in India. That alone took courage; but what most impressed this student was that his former boss often asked him for feedback, although the student only considered himself a “lowly analyst.”

Alumni engage in group discussion about late-blooming leaders.

Alumni engage in group discussion about late-blooming leaders.

Useem, who also serves as director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, gave the example of someone who took charge later in his career was Chile’s former Minister of Mining and Energy Laurence Golborne Riveros. Golborne is best known for his efforts to save 33 trapped miners in 2010, and it’s that experience that Useem homed in on. Golborne pledged to the miners’ families that he would do everything in his power to save their husbands (when he didn’t have the authority) and then overcame the incredible geological and political obstacles to do so.

How would they have built the rescue team if they were Golborne, Useem asked the alumni attendees. What made Golborne—a businessman who had been appointed to what otherwise would have been a behind-the-scenes government assignment—decide to become a leader on the global stage? The more than 2,000 reporters who arrived from around the world for the story? A miner’s family member who shouted at Golborne: “If you lose it, we’re all lost”?

As with any superior educational experience, Useem’s master class left attendees with more questions to ask themselves, friends and family members during the rest of their time at Reunion—and perhaps beyond. And surely that MBA student left inspired too.

 

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