Being the best leader for the situation

Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter , a book which analyzes how and when historic and modern leaders make a difference. Mukunda spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

In your book, you talk about the filtered and unfiltered leader. What’s the difference?

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Organizations don’t choose a leader randomly. They always have a process to evaluate the person whom they want to lead. A filtered leader is someone who has gone through a long evaluation process. They’ve been filtered by their years of experience at the organization and through evaluation. Unfiltered leaders bypass this long process and are hired externally.

Should organizations seek filtered or unfiltered leaders?
If you’re an organization that’s relatively successful, go with the insider. You might think you know a lot about another organization’s CEO, but it’s never the same as evaluating someone based on personal experience. There’s inherent risk in hiring an unfiltered leader. We just saw Yahoo hire Marissa Mayer, a Google executive. Of course she’s a perfectly capable leader with an impressive background, but she’s never been a CEO and she’s in a company that’s very different than Google. They’re probably taking more of a risk than they think they’re taking.

If your organization needs to adapt or move away from a point of failure—gamble. There are some circumstances where you want to start thinking about bringing in unfiltered people. This person you pick might be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

How can organizations maximize their odds of success in choosing a capable leader?

You’re not looking for the best leader. What you’re looking for is the person who’s best suited to the situation. If you examine Winston Churchill’s celebrated career, what you see is a man who was often very wrong. However, for two weeks in May 1940, Churchill was the only man who could have kept Great Britain in the war. He was the wrong person for almost every situation, but he was the only right person for that crucial moment. It also helps to bring in somebody who was notably successful in a filtered environment. If someone has risen to a level of success over 20 years in a company like General Electric, for example, you should have a lot of confidence in his or her abilities.

How do you differentiate between a good and a bad leader?

We used to evaluate leaders on a spectrum of whether they were good, mediocre or bad . There is no spectrum. Rather, there are normal leaders and there are abnormal ones. Some abnormal leaders are great and some are awful. In fact, some of the ones who are considered great would have been awful in other circumstances. Look at Steve Jobs. If you were hiring a CEO, would you hire an individual who was unable to work with anyone else and who almost bankrupted his company by obsessing over the color of the staircases in their factory? Of course you wouldn’t. Well congratulations, you decided not to hire one of the most successful business people in history. 

What advice do you have for federal employees early in their careers who are striving for leadership roles?  

If you are someone who likes to work your way up the organization, then you need to know the downfalls of only having the perspective of that organization. You won’t have that outside insight. Organizations are all absorbing—you spend most of your day at your job. You need to make a very deliberate and very strategic effort to learn and think outside your worldview. If you are in the Department of Defense (DOD), find something that interests you that has nothing to do with the DOD. If you’re a baseball fan, don’t just go to the games, find out how the most successful general manager in baseball operates, and what he knows that you can apply to your organization. Think about how you shape your network, and include people who are not a part of your world.

Who would you identify as indispensable leaders?

Abraham Lincoln was the most indispensable president. He certainly wasn’t seen as such at the time. If you’re going to pick the person in 1860 who is most suited to lead the U.S. in the beginning of the Civil War, the guy you pick is William Seward, who instead became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. You don’t pick a one-term congressman from a small town in Illinois. But Lincoln’s influence was so enormously positive it’s almost impossible to overstate.

Dr. Judah Folkman was also an extraordinary human being. He went to Harvard Medical School at 20, invented the implantable pacemaker at 22 and was chief of surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital at 34. He was a man who radiated humility to everybody. That’s the thing: Lincoln and Folkman were men who not only had supreme self-confidence, but also the unique ability to be supremely humble at the same time.

More from On Leadership:

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Why politics and work don’t mix

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