A Great Leader, Filtered Or Unfiltered

Don’t worry too much if you lose the head of your organization. Most leaders are pretty interchangeable.

That, at least, is the contention of Harvard Business School organizational psychology professor Gautam Mukunda, who has written a book called Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. If Jack Welch hadn’t been at General Electric, the argument goes, another executive would have emerged to do very similar things.

Once in a rare while, though, a leader comes along who is truly an irreplaceable agent of change: an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. Mukunda, based on the history of U.S. presidents, has come to the conclusion that such memorable leaders tend to have two things in common: 1. They defy their experts and advisors. 2. They come in from the outside rather than up through the system.

Image source: US Library of Congress

“The very best decisions,” Mukunda told NPR this week, are made by leaders to whom “all the experts say, ‘No, that’s an awful idea, don’t do that!’ and they do it anyway and it works out.”

According to Mukunda, such people are more likely to be outsiders, or what he calls “unfiltered leaders.” These are people like Teddy Roosevelt or Churchill, who came to power after sudden crisis, or George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, who came as outsiders to their jobs. They’re either wonderful or terrible—but always important.

Peter Drucker would certainly have agreed that memorable leaders—often the best among them—defy the advice of their peers. A decision maker, Drucker asserted in Managing in Turbulent Times, has to “face up to reality and to resist the temptation of what ‘everybody knows,’ the temptation of the certainties of yesterday, which are about to become the deleterious superstitions of tomorrow.”

Drucker also saw advantages to being an outsider. “The outsider doesn’t know the details,” he said. “And while there is truth in the old saying that ‘God is in the details,’ it’s also true that details alone are treacherous. You need to see the big picture, as well—and that the outsider often sees more clearly.”

Finally, Drucker believed that few leaders are truly indispensable; in fact, he considered a good leader to be someone who makes himself or herself less and less indispensable. “The worst thing you can say about a leader is that on the day he or she left, the organization collapsed,” Drucker wrote. “He or she hasn’t built.”

Still, Drucker recognized that there were exceptional times—times of crisis—that did require exceptional, perhaps indispensable, leaders. Churchill was one. “For 12 years, from 1928 until Dunkirk in 1940, he was totally on the sidelines, almost discredited—because there was no need for a Churchill,” Drucker noted. “When the catastrophe came, thank goodness, he was available. . . . That’s when you do depend on the leader.”

Who do think is the most indispensable leader in the world today, in either government or business—and why?