• 04 Sep 2012
  • Research & Ideas

Why Most Leaders (Even Thomas Jefferson) Are Replaceable

Leaders rarely make a lasting impact on their organizations—even the really, really good ones. Then out of the blue comes a Churchill. Gautam Mukunda discusses his new book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.
by Kim Girard

Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Gautam Mukunda leads off his new book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, with the results of social science research that executives may wish not to consider: individual leaders rarely make a difference.

Although many heads of organizations would like to think of themselves as truly indispensable—impact makers, history movers, culture changers—few reach the bar set by Steve Jobs, Napoleon, or Martin Luther King Jr., Mukunda says. (Even some people you might think would be shoo-ins for the indispensable category don't make Mukunda's cut, including Thomas Jefferson and Jack Welch. More on them later.)

Under most circumstances, a leader is elected or appointed. And it makes no difference who ends up in power so long as the person is experienced and is hired through the structured processes that most organizations use to vet everyone from CEOs to military officers to presidential candidates, Mukunda says.

Read an excerpt from the book

"Are individual leaders truly responsible for the end result, or do they just happen to be there, for better or worse?" Mukunda asks. "We revere Lincoln. He must matter. But it's not so clear that that this is the case, and it is certainly not clear that every leader matters."

Out Of The Blue

Every once in a while, though, someone comes to power who is inexperienced or appointed in an unusual way. The incumbent dies suddenly, for example. Or a country experiences extreme historical circumstances. It's this person who has the potential to become an unconventional, powerful leader—a Hitler, perhaps, but maybe a Winston Churchill.

These people—total extremes on both ends—are usually "unfiltered" leaders, those who are unproven in their area of leadership, Mukunda explains. They are also, in most cases, the ones who matter when history is written.

“Unfiltered leaders are much more likely to have a high impact”

"Unfiltered leaders are much more likely to have a high impact," Mukunda says. "Unfiltered leaders will do extremely well or extremely poorly. Everything else boils out of that."

In his research, Mukunda wanted to identify "those particular individuals who were the right people, in the right place, at the right time, to change history." By doing so, he hopes to improve our understanding of contemporary leaders and "perhaps help us choose better ones."

Mukunda knew he needed solid data to answer the question of who mattered. So he made lists of US presidents and British prime ministers that dated back to George Washington in 1789 and Britain's Charles Grey in 1830. He noted how historians ranked them on performance, how much political experience they had before entering office, and how they got the top job.

The result was his Leader Filtration Theory, or LFT, which states that a leader's impact can be predicted by his or her career. The more unfiltered the leader, the larger the prospect of big impact. The more a leader has relevant experience, the less chance of high impact.

Filtering A Leader

There are three factors that social scientists agree minimize the impact of leaders:

  • An external environment in which responses of competitors limits the leader's discretion to act.
  • Internal organizational dynamics, bureaucratic politics, or constituents' interests that leaders must respond to.
  • The selection systems used to pick leaders, which he says homogenize the pool of potential CEOs and presidents. These are especially important, Mukunda argues, because they preserve the status quo and prevent incompetent or disturbed leaders from gaining power.

Take General Electric. What if GE's board had picked someone other than Jack Welch as CEO? Would the company have performed the same?

Most likely, GE would have chosen someone quite similar to Welch had he not accepted the job, Mukunda says. Because of this, Mukunda calls Welch a leader of "low individual impact." It's likely that another candidate chosen by GE management would have performed nearly or as well as he did.

Winston Churchill was an unfiltered, high-impact leaderOn the other end from low impact leaders are those whom Mukunda terms "extremes." These people, who slip through the cracks of conventional leadership filtering processes, are more likely to be high-impact and make their mark on history "for better or worse." The book studies both kinds of leadership through historical cases that Mukunda teaches in his courses.

In the book, Mukunda classifies every US president from George Washington to G.W. Bush as "filtered" or "unfiltered" based on their experience in offices that would prepare them for the presidency, and how they became president. A filtered president is one with a high amount of relevant experience, an unfiltered one with little or no such domain experience.

George Washington, as the first president, was an unfiltered revolutionary leader. Teddy Roosevelt was unfiltered, because he was a vice president who got the top job following the assassination of William McKinley. John F. Kennedy was a filtered leader with 13 years in the House and Senate. George W. Bush was unfiltered, Mukunda says, because he spent less than six years as governor and was boosted by family connections.

Mukunda's findings support the LFT theory that unfiltered presidents often turn up at the high and low ends—four of the five highest ranked presidents and four of the five lowest ranked ones were unfiltered.

In case studies he analyzes three presidents and two prime ministers: Jefferson, whom he called "the hardest possible case," Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, comparing their approaches to decision-making with people who plausibly could have been in their shoes.

Chamberlain is a perfect example of "how a British prime minister reaches the top of the greasy pole" by climbing the political system and serving as postmaster general, minister for health, and chancellor for the exchequer before becoming PM. He was a filtered, low-impact prime minister who never willingly stood up to Hitler. Churchill, on the other hand, was widely considered a "failed, right-wing politician," named prime minister because Halifax, Chamberlain's Foreign Minister, didn't want the job, not because the king and the cabinet decided that Churchill was the best choice.

"They didn't have any alternatives," Mukunda says.

“We revere Lincoln. He must matter. But it's not so clear that that this is the case”

An unfiltered, extreme leader, Churchill made history. "His energy, his talents, his indomitable courage, his rhetorical abilities, and his rigidity and inflexibility were enormously unlike the vast majority of politicians," Mukunda says.

On the other hand, there is Thomas Jefferson, whom Mukunda argues had low impact, despite his success as a filtered president. There were others who could have easily taken Jefferson's place, including James Madison and John Adams. While Jefferson secured his place in history with the critical Louisiana Purchase, Mukunda argues that "no diplomatic virtuosity or intellectual brilliance was required…there is nothing in the events surrounding it that suggests any normal president could not or would not have done the same."

Results May Vary

These two cases—Jefferson and Churchill —illustrate Mukunda's theory that a filtered leader can deliver excellent results without being extreme, and an extreme leader can be a force for great change.

Mukunda hopes future research will expand the Leader Filtration Theory, which he believes can be applied by companies trying to make better CEO choices—and even in evaluating presidential candidates.

The trick for a company or country picking an extreme leader is to realize that it is a high-stakes gamble, and that the candidates are difficult to evaluate—it happens over time as they are observed leading and making decisions. In the book Mukunda offers specific ways to avoid making a poor candidate choice:

  • Avoid deceptive signals. Someone who has ridden family wealth to high office, for example, may have accomplished less than meets the eye.
  • Match the leader's characteristics to your situation and remove them from power when situations change.
  • Take seriously the statements made by unfiltered leaders before they take power.
  • Choose unfiltered leaders who have been successful filtered leaders in other contexts.
  • Shape the position to fit the leader you choose.

Want to see an unfiltered leader in action? Check out the mercurial ups and downs of the nearest startup. "They're always unfiltered," Mukunda says. "In pretty much every case the personal quirks of the entrepreneur will have a huge impact."

About the Author

Kim Girard is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.