Unfiltered candidates can make the best leaders

Most leaders, whatever they think or want to think, are ultimately dispensable, according to Gautam Mukunda in his book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. The impact of individual leaders tends to be minimised by the external environment, internal organisational dynamics, and leader selection systems which filter out candidates who differ from the norm. It is only when the leader filtration process is bypassed that truly exceptional leaders are chosen.

In support of this assertion, the author tells the stories of a number of prominent leaders, including:

  • Thomas Jefferson, who was a filtered candidate for US president, and is regarded as one of the best presidents because of the Louisiana purchase, but any other president would have acted the same in the same circumstances
  • Abraham Lincoln, who was an unfiltered presidential candidate whose idiosyncratic characteristics caused him to make decisions which other presidents would not have made
  • Woodrow Wilson, an unfiltered presidential candidate whose idiosyncratic characteristics prevented him from achieving US ratification of the Treaty of Versailles
  • Neville Chamberlain, a filtered candidate for prime minister of Great Britain, who was unsuitable as a war-time leader
  • Winston Churchill, and unfiltered prime ministerial candidate, whose idiosyncratic characteristics were instrumental in leading Great Britain to victory in the second world war

According to the author, filtered leadership candidates – those who have extensive experience and have gone through a careful selection process – tend to do a competent but not exceptional job. Unfiltered candidates – those who achieve a leadership position without extensive screening – are more likely to be either very bad or very good. To illustrate this, the author asserts that four of the best five and four out of the worst five US presidents were unfiltered candidates.

I found the book’s biographical descriptions of leaders enjoyable and entertaining. There seems to be some merit in the author’s theory, but I am somewhat sceptical about whether the theory has a useful application for organisations when choosing leaders. I just find it too hard to believe that it is wise for an organisation going through difficult times to “roll the dice” and appoint an untried leader in the hope of finding a genius.

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