Book Excerpt
The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It
by Michael Useem

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An excerpt from The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It by Michael Useem, published 2006 by Crown Business Books.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2006 Michael Useem




Imagine for a moment that you are taken out of your normal day-to-day life and thrust as a wildland firefighter into the midst of a raging Colorado fire, becoming the de facto leader of a crew whose goal is to stop it from spreading. With scant information available about weather conditions you urgently have to decide where your crew should go - up the mountain or down - and your forced choice has potential life and death consequences.

Or you are now on the bond trading floor at Lehman Brothers and you have to make multi-million dollar buy or sell decisions that will have huge consequences not only for the profitability of your firm but also your year-end bonus.

Or perhaps you are the new chief executive of Hewlett-Packard forced to clean up the mess left by your predecessor who pushed through a decision to merge Compaq Computer company with your own struggling computer operation. Jobs are going to be cut, perhaps entire divisions dissolved. How do you decide who goes and what stays?

All of these are go points, times to decide, moments for saying yes or no, instants for jumping one direction or another when the fate of others depends on it. When should you do it, and how should you do it?

To master of the art and practice of being decisive, our account will take you to some of the most daunting terrains on earth - from a burning mountain in Montana to the highest mountain in the Himalaya, from a corporate boardroom to a Civil War battlefield, from a troubled Tyco to surging Lenovo. We will combat a forest fire, climb Mt. Everest, peer into a boardroom, and see for ourselves how Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to launch Pickett's Charge. But we will also witness people making less time-bound or momentous decisions: training astronauts, writing poetry, prepping a quarterback, leading a church, taking a job. And we will make four decisions of our own by applying what we have learned from those who have staked their companies, their careers, their countries on reaching the right decision.

The Go Point takes you inside the heart and head of people at their go point. And from their experience and that of our own we will build 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 and oracles for testing ideas, keeping options open until they must be closed.

This book is built on more than a hundred interviews and observations of leading decision makers, mostly conducted between 2002 and 2006. For the interviews, my approach has been to ask the individuals to describe and analyze decisions they have made with consequences for those around and dependent upon them. What were their best and worst decisions, their most challenging ones? How did they reach them? What factors brought them to their individual go-points? What would they change and what have they learned? During the interviews, generally sixty minutes in length but sometimes shorter and other times far longer, I kept detailed notes and often a digital recording.

I sought interviews with people from a broad cross-section of professions and callings: a NASA astronaut, a Marine colonel and a thoracic surgeon, an Episcopal Bishop; school teachers, corporate executives, Chinese entrepreneurs. Many are not explicitly referenced in the book's text, but their experience and thinking is reflected throughout the book. The settings for the interviews ranged from executives suites to classrooms, trail sides, and training centers. I accompanied a wildland fire team as it fought a blaze in California, spent hours on a trading floor of an investment bank, and joined a day-long briefing by those who run the training program for astronauts at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

At times, I have also observed decision makers as they described, analyzed or even engaged in decisions with consequences for others. And in some cases I was able to both observe and interview the individuals in question, sometimes on multiple occasions. All moments of observation were accompanied by detailed note taking and in some instances audio and even video recording.

High profile figures such as Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers; General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf; and New York Times chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. have shared or conveyed their decision-making experiences, but I have also looked in more out of the way corners, where the decisions taken or avoided had dramatic consequences for those involved. I hiked a fire zone on Colorado's Storm King Mountain with seventeen professional fire fighters, seeking to understand the chain of go-points that had led an earlier group to be engulfed by a lethal blow-up in 1994, and I talked with a survivor of a well-known airplane crash in the Andes.

In addition to the interviews, I have devoted more than forty days to the study of decision making by the Civil War commanders who fought at Gettysburg. Time and again I have walked that hallowed battlefield with managers and MBA students accompanied by U.S. National Park Service licensed battlefield guides William Bowling, Hans Henzel, and Charles Fennell and, during one of those days, Civil War historian James M. McPherson.

As part of the Wharton Leadership Ventures, I have also observed managers and MBA students making hundreds of decisions on everything from route finding to program restructuring in venues as far-flung as Patagonia and even Antarctica. In conjunction with a leadership development program for the Philadelphia public-school system, I have informally discussed with teachers and administrators how they go about making decisions. Lessons in decision making, in go-pointing, can be found literally everywhere.

In all these interviews and observations, I have looked for both recurrent themes and unique experiences across a range of organizations and even national boundaries. I have sought to extract what is most enduringly important for decision makers when they carry responsibility for others, regardless of the context. I have also drawn upon a broad range of research studies and historical accounts, some but not all cited in the pages of this text. The decision principles and tools identified here bear a huge debt to all those who have lent me their time, their experience, and their intellects.

The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It by 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.

The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It by Michael Useem,


Michael Useem, the author of The Leadership Moment, is the William 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. Professor Useem takes his students to the ends of the world-the Antarctic, the Andes, and the Himalayas-to learn about their personal and professional go points. Professor Useem earned his doctorate at Harvard University and has published widely, including in the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Fast Company. He is also the editor of the Wharton Leadership Digest and lives in Marion Station, Pennsylvania.

The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It by Michael Useem,


"Great decisions are the hallmark of a successful executive. In The Go Point, Michael Useem provides invaluable insight into how to make the critical call."

-- Larry Bossidy, retired chairman and CEO of Honeywell International and coauthor of Execution and Confronting Reality

"The Go Point is a tour de force of a tour through battlefields and boardrooms, illuminating the differences between brilliant and tragic decisions. Michael Useem is a wise, witty, and understanding guide whose insights can dramatically improve leadership and decision-making skills. Go for it!"

-- Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School, bestselling author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin and End

"Michael Useem ... spells out in plain English the consequences of making hard and fast decisions, when they matter most and impact teams of people. There are plenty of books on leadership, but few that explain how to take a team from one place to the next. This one is the best."

-- Maria Bartiromo, journalist and CNBC anchor

"This exciting book is a valuable guide to effective decision making. The Go Point's great strength is to put the reader inside the heads of fascinating, often heroic people as they seek to `get it right,' under pressure and with incomplete information."

-- Steven Kerr, managing director and chief learning officer, Goldman Sachs & Co.

"In The Go Point, Michael Useem identifies the essence of what it takes to prepare for moments of decision. He draws from an array of compelling accounts to help us appreciate what is essential for decisive decision making when it really counts."

-- Peter M. Dawkins, vice chairman, Citigroup Global Wealth Management, U.S. Army Brigadier General (Ret.)

"How does any leader know what to do and when to do it? Here Michael Useem, one of America's foremost thinkers about leadership, unravels that mystery in a fast-paced, well-written, and unforgettable book. Highly recommended for everyone with courage for the arena!"

-- David Gergen, professor of public service, director, Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

"In his latest book, Michael Useem walks you up close to your moment of decision, and, with examples from some of the most pivotal go points in human endeavor, shows you how to master it. This is by far the most practical book on decision making I have ever read."

-- Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules; Now, Discover Your Strengths; and The One Thing You Need to Know

The Go Point : When It's Time to Decide -- Knowing What to Do and When to Do It by Michael Useem,

We have reviewed this book.
Link to our book review.