What Security Executives Should Know about Leadership

A Q&A with Wharton Professor Mike Useem


What do security executives need to know about leadership? We spoke recently with Wharton Professor Mike Useem, author of The Leadership Moment and The Go Point. Useem often takes executives in the Wharton/ASIS Security Executive Program out to the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg to examine the direct impact of leadership decisions. For the managers who join him, the lessons are about much more than history.

Why is an understanding of leadership increasingly important for security executives?

Useem: There are two major reasons. First, security executives need to know how the top leaders in their enterprise operate. They have to have a framework for understanding the leadership style of their immediate boss as well as the chief executive. How do senior managers make decisions? What personal values and collective vision guide their actions? What information and advice do they want from you, and in what form do they want it? By understanding the distinctive leadership styles of your firm's top people, you will have a better handle for working with them and delivering what they need from you. It makes for a stronger capacity for "leading up."

Second, since 9/11, many companies have placed far greater emphasis on security, and this has put a premium on the leadership of those who are responsible for security. Security executives now operate in a more complex, uncertain, and fast-changing environment. And given the greater security concerns of the post 9/11 era, the stakes are higher, decisions more consequential, and the leadership exercised by security executives is consequently more important. When things go wrong, as they more often can in our turbulent times, top management immediately looks to the security executive for leadership through the crisis and beyond. Being fully prepared for such moment has become all the more essential.

What are the most important things for security executives to know about leadership?

Whether working for a company, public agency, or non-profit organization, security executives need at a minimum a capacity to articulate a clear vision, think strategically, and act decisively. They must bring character and integrity to everything they do. Their leadership skill set is really not much different from that of South Africa's Nelson Mandela or GE's Jack Welch.

Why do you take the security executives to the Gettysburg battlefield?

The classroom is a marvelous venue for identifying the key capacities of leadership. But to really appreciate the power of those ideas, there are few better experiences than to witness them embodied in the Union and Confederate commanders who made some of our history's most critical decisions on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. By standing where Robert E. Lee stood on July 3, 1863 when he ordered the attack on a well defended Union line in what has become known as Pickett's Charge, we indelibly appreciate how vital it is to have good intelligence on challengers or threats before deciding how best to defend against or attack them. A major factor in Lee's decision to launch the charge was a woeful absence of good information on the strength of the Union's defense.

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