A Great Leader, Filtered Or Unfiltered

Posted on Oct 26, 2012 | 6 Comments

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.

“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?


  1. Maverick18
    October 27, 2012

    Indespensibility of an individual is a fantasy. Noone could be more indespensible to an organization or a movement than Adolph Hitler was to the Third Reich. The Nazi’s required allegiance from all, not to the Fatherland or the Party, but to the Fuhrer himself. We saw how well that worked out.

    On our side of the pond, the reins held by FDR passed to Harry Truman, who earlier may have been considered one of the least likely Americans to succeed FDR and excel. In fact, FDR did little to prepare his Vice President for the awesome responsibility he assumed. Perhaps FDR understood HST’s inate capabilities.

    Winston Churchill and Harry Truman had something in common. They rose to the occasion when the occasion arose. And both moved on and were replaced in the normal course of two great countries. What one needs to distinguish is the indespensibly of good leadership, particulary during critical periods, from the good job done by particular leaders. Could other individuals have done as well or better? We’ll never really know.

  2. Mike Grayson
    October 27, 2012

    Peter Drucker was very emphatic that we should not be enamoured with leaders because it is a very dangerous thing. Consider Hitler and Mao.

    A great leader asks the question “What needs to be done?” And then listens to his/her team to make the right decisions. If there is a concensus, a great leader should take pause and seek a different point of view. Drucker’s example of Alfred P. Sloan pointed out that there is a danger when there is no opposing point of view.

    Decisions made by many of the leaders today, and perhaps throughout history, are often based on power or politics, and not what must be done to benefit the organization and society. There are no indispensible leaders.

  3. Bryan
    October 27, 2012

    I’d assert that the leader is not as critical as much as the ideas or direction that he or she embraces. Hitler was influential, but inherently flawed due to his tragically misguided ideas and beliefs. Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Lincoln, Washington, and others like them were successful because they had “right” on their side. Hitler, Mao, bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and others like them were ultimately unsuccessful because their ideas were inherently flawed and therefore doomed to fail. There are simply too many good people in the world who embrace freedom, democracy, capitalism, opportunity and human dignity. We’re better off focusing on cultivating attributes that enable leaders to thrive in a variety of situations, such as perserverance, creativity, resilience, integrity, respect and honor. Those people will be better prepared to succeed in whatever challenge they face.

  4. Alba Patricia Valencia
    October 28, 2012

    The most indispensable leader in the world today, is must have congruence and consistence between being, saying and act. Likewise, one’s have persuasion power to move population.

    But our apocalypses are worse. Everything systems are based on fear above that foundation our civilization and our leaders have thought that world is only for them and they act as depredators of all.

    In addition, our leaders should have balance between passionate thought and conscious thought because between in thought ideas are born and then they will become actions.

    Un líder debe tener congruencia y consistencia entre el ser, el decir y el actuar. Así mismo debe tener poder de persuasión para mover la población.

    Pero nuestro apocalipsis es caótico. Todos los sistemas están basados en el miedo sobre el que se fundamenta nuestra civilización, y nuestros líderes han pensado que el mundo es solo para ellos y por eso actúan como depredadores de todo.

    Por esto, nuestros líderes deben tener equilibrio entre el pensamiento apasionado y el pensamiento consciente porque las ideas nacen en los pensamientos y luego se convierten en acciones.

  5. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    October 30, 2012

    [...]      Proof That the Right Leader Matters: Last week on the Dx, we examined the idea that leaders might, most of the time, be interchangeable. Writing at the HBR Blog, Claudio [...]

  6. Michael
    January 9, 2013

    Great info and lively discussion. I work with schools and leaders are important insofar as they hire, retain, and train great teachers. Good leadership with weak followers isn’t very effective. So, the number one role of the leader is to be the type of person that others will want to follow and hire good people.

    I discuss this and more in my blog, Motivational School Leadership at http://motivationalschoolleadership.blogspot.com



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