Book Excerpt: Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter

In his new book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, HBS professor Gautam Mukunda addresses the question of whether leaders create history or are created by it. Read our excerpt.

In his new book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Gautam Mukunda addresses the question of whether leaders create history or are created by it. In this excerpt from Chapter One, he discusses why most individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead.

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Hunting the High-Impact Leader

From Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter

By Gautam Mukunda

Indispensable: When Leaders Really MatterIn the middle of May 1860, delegates to the Republican National Convention met in Chicago to choose the party's nominee for president. The United States faced its greatest crisis since the Revolutionary War. The Democratic Party was so bitterly divided that it had been unable to even choose a candidate at its own convention, so the man the Republicans selected would almost certainly become president and face the Herculean task of dealing with secession. In this moment of crisis the delegates could have chosen either of two of the most accomplished politicians in America, William Henry Seward or Salmon P. Chase. Both had been United States senators and governors of major states. Both were superbly educated and had decades-long careers of public service. Both were renowned for their work in the antislavery cause. Both were at the peak of their powers and reputation. Instead the convention chose a one-term congressman whose claim to fame was an unsuccessful run for the Senate from Illinois: the convention chose Abraham Lincoln.

Given the gravity of the crisis and what was known at the time about the candidates, choosing Lincoln instead of Seward or Chase seems an act of shocking recklessness. Why pick a virtual unknown over two experienced and accomplished men of national stature? But there's a tougher and even more important question: Did their choice matter? Would Seward or Chase have governed as effectively as Lincoln? Was Lincoln indispensable?

When groups succeed, leaders often get the credit. When groups fail, leaders often get the blame. Should they? Another way of asking this is: how much, exactly, does it matter who leads? Are individual leaders truly responsible for the end result, or do they just happen to be there—for better or worse? Is history made by forces outside our control, or can leaders make a real difference?

With Lincoln, questions like this seem almost heretical. We revere Lincoln. He must matter. But it's not so clear that this is the case, and it is certainly not clear that every leader matters. Sometimes leaders have no choice. No president could have avoided declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. But a president other than George W. Bush might not have taken the country to war in Iraq in 2003.

The trick—and this book is dedicated to it—is figuring out which leaders matter, and when and why, and what lessons we can take from those who do. In puzzling out the answers to these questions, we will focus on those individuals who seem very different from everyone else who might have been in their shoes. The consistent pattern of their careers—and there is a consistent pattern—will help answer our question about which individuals in history really did have an impact. It will help identify contemporary leaders who could have a large impact, and even evaluate candidates for leadership. Along the way we will build a new theory about leaders that, even as it acknowledges that most individual leaders have little impact, identifies the relatively rare circumstances when a single individual in the right place, at the right time, can make history.

Philosophers and social scientists have debated the role of leaders for centuries. Plato, writing his Republic in the fourth century B.C., argued that the ideal city would have an elaborate system to choose its leaders that made any individual leader replaceable. Thucydides, writing just a bit earlier than Plato, took a very different position by describing how individual Athenian leaders, particularly Pericles, played a crucial factor in the course of the Peloponnesian War, as their varying skills and preferences led directly to Athenian victories and defeats.

Many, many have followed the Greeks' lead, but two nineteenth-century thinkers have become more contemporary champions for each viewpoint. Karl Marx argued for the unimportance of individual leaders, proclaiming, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given, and transmitted from the past." Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish writer who named economics "the dismal science," famously declared for the other side: "The History of the world is but the Biography of great men."

Our instincts might lead us to side with Carlyle (and Thucydides), to think that leaders matter. Certainly, many leaders (especially the successful ones) make this claim—just have a look at the business section of your local bookstore. But social scientists who systematically study leadership generally agree with Marx. From psychology to political science to management to economics, researchers who study leadership argue or assume that individual leaders are surprisingly unimportant.

Strikingly, social scientists in every field have identified different versions of the same three forces that, together, minimize the impact of individual leaders. Although these three forces have only sometimes been explicitly identified, they underpin every social science theory that argues or assumes the dispensability of individual leaders. The combination of all three forces usually means that individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead. The forces are:

  1. The external environment. The external environment forces leaders to act in response to its pressures, leaving individual leaders little control or influence on policy and implementation.
  2. Internal organizational dynamics. Leaders respond to the bureaucratic politics and interests of constituencies within their organization, making the identity of the leader unimportant as long as the internal dynamics of the organization remain constant.
  3. Leader selection systems. The process by which leaders come to power homogenizes the pool of potential leaders. Different people might have acted differently, but those who would have chosen differently never gain power in the first place.

Forces 1 and 2—the external and internal forces—can be enormously strong and severely limit a leader's impact. This problem is compounded by force 3: how organizations choose leaders. Organizations tend to select their leaders carefully, so managers become "more and more homogenous" the higher you go. Or, to put it another way, organizations try to weed out the crazies, the incompetent, or anyone who just doesn't fit in. That means that CEOs and other leaders tend to be drawn from a pool of candidates that contains little variation. Established interests within organizations move to control the succession process to ensure that the winners are conducive to their interests. Management is important, but individual managers need not be.

The same is true of other selection processes that "filter" the candidates for leadership. The process will tend to prevent people with unique personalities from gaining leadership positions, or the state's governing political ideology will ensure that only a certain type of person can come to power, or the process of choosing a leader will match person to circumstance.

The upshot of the three forces? Some person must fill the role of leader, but which person may not matter at all.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. Copyright © 2012 Gautam Mukunda. All rights reserved.
    • Sivaramakrishnan
    • Advisor, IL&FS ltd
    An excellent article. Especially the para on how organizations choose leaders is insightful. In today's context the CEOs prefer compliant and committed deputies to be promoted to positions of leadership. Also known as Cronyism. No wonder Org suffer from absence of sound decision making, strategy and consequently well crafted strategies for sustained growth.
    • G.P.Rao.
    • Founder Chairman, Spandan, India.
    Behaviour is a function of Individual and Situation. Leader behaviour, success or otherwise, therefore is a function of leader and the situation or environment within which he operates.The three forces identified represent the Situation - the leveling factor. The individual, the leader factor still remains - which really matters, distinguishes the leader from a non-leader. The last sentence of the excerpt, 'Some person must fill the role of leader, but which person may not matter at all', therefore, stands revised as ' but which person DOES matter.
    Come to think of it, extending the logic and developing the thought processes further, one can postulate 51:49 Leadership Philosophy, signifying the challenges, opportunities and limits for leader effectiveness (51) and follower functioning (49) respectively (Rao, G.P., 2013)
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    I do not believe that leaders do not matter and that internal and external environment and the organisational laid down guidelines alone would lead any Tom, Dick or Harry to fit in and deliver. Steve Jobs left Apple and it suffered. He returned and there was a big turnaround.
    Selection of leadership is a critical time-bound process if managements are really serious. That's why a proper succession planning is so seriously emphasised.
    Ratan Tata has done this so seriously and patiently surprising many aspirants for the top post.
    The example of Lincoln selection has parallels in history. In India many a king ignored his kith and made some tried and tested outsider his successor seeing that this one was a complete human being with qualities of head and heart. High educational qualifications and degree allonges must never be given lot of weight while selecting leaders who have to be a sumtotal of many human qualities with high ethical and emotional quotient. For such people success of their organisation gets dovetailed to their personal aims and they leave no stone unturned to achieve the goals properly.
    • kumaraswamy rao
    • Professor, BIET
    Gandhiji who led the country to freedom through NON VOILENCE , Is he in your opinion a dispensable leader who made history just because the circumstances forced him to do what he did?