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.
    • Patrick Lee
    • Owner, www.JeffersonLeadership.com
    Although "filtered" by your criteria, I challenge the notion that Thomas Jefferson was "low impact." Read his blog and decide for yourself.
    Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, leadership.
    Recent posts:
    - How do the poor people live?
    - Were you this clever at 16?
    - What's a valetudinarian? (You don't want to be one.)
    - (a video post) Does one lie lead to another? And another? And ...
    - Can I get an "Amen!," somebody?
    Read his own words at http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/
    • G.Richard "Dick" Goold '49
    • C.P.A.
    Was President Harrry Truman considered as an unfiltered leader? He succeeded FDR when FDR died. Truman ha a reputation of having been a failure and a political hack out of the Predergast machine in Missouri,even though, as a Senator he had conducted a very well done investigation of the "military-business" relationship.
    Truman's decision to use the nuclear option to end the war with Japan was historic and his post war efforts outstanding including the selection of George Marshall as Secretary of State, the rescue of Berlin and his dealings with the Russians.
    • Anonymous
    Most leaders are replaceable is a conclusion which has been proven via historical analysis. This is a broad brush conclusion which is true in the business world, political arenas and even in professional sports. If a coach of a professional team has "the good horses" (superior players and superior player recruiters) he is in a statistically favorable position and will have a good chance of capturing "The Superbowl" or "The World Series".
    • Anonymous
    I believe an unfiltered leader is the one who can bring in new thinking while a filtered leader only processed same kind of quality from the hierarchy. Hence, unfiltered leader is able to make breakthrough or solve crisis! Trust is matching Professor Mukunda's findings from another angle!
    • Wes Davis
    • Janitor
    Nice article. I would recommend the Mr. Mukunda spend much more time on the subject of your concluding paragraph...than on the subjective evaluation of high profile leaders. If Mr. Mukunda wants a real challenge for his LTF theory, apply it to the local plumbing company, dentist office, or other small business. Then let's see who has what impact.
    • Doug Blackmur
    • Adjunct Professor, University of the Western Cape
    Mukunda argues that "Chamberlain .... was a filtered, low-impact prime minister who never willingly stood up to Hitler".
    This raises the question as to what is meant by "low-impact". Chamberlain's "unwillingness" to challenge Hitler arguably had a high impact in that it contributed to the horror that was World War 2. Maybe Chamberlain was a filtered, high impact prime minister"!
    • Kumar
    • AVP, iNautix Technologie India Ltd
    It is indeed an interesting article, but it is a shame that there is no mention about the great leader 'Gandhi'. I recommend Gautam to also read about Gandhi and recheck his theory.
    • Ravindran Kanningat
    • Faculty - Business Studies, Edgewater College
    People consider one as the leader provided there is a substantial result due to his leadership abilities that benefits the whole society. Every result, therefore, is a direct relation to the amount of risk undertaken by the leader. An unfiltered leader is an extreme case as compared to filtered leaders, whose ability to take risk is highly calculative with restricted thinking due to his orientation.
    • Clifford Pai
    • Head - Employee Relations, Infosys
    For those of us who at times experience this feeling of being indispensable, here's some humble pie from Gautam Mukunda. Thanks Gautam.
    • Anonymous
    Its really tricky when one come out with such kind of analysis or theory since none can be put to test. How do we know someone elses in Jack Welch's place would have done same or better than him since then GE wouldn't have reached/established bench mark help it to achieved by Jack Welch.
    In my opinion such theories are good only for debate on what would have happened if such & such thing had taken place apart from that they don't really add any value.
    • T. Williams
    • Doctoral Student, Trinity Sem.
    Most meaning concepts re: leadership. I learned during my undergraduate educational experience in "Group Dynamics that in any given group there are always "two" leaders, the one placed in the position officially and the "true" leader, the one that the group members follow. Your statements substantiate this for me. Over the years, I have and do actually observed the phenomena daily and find it laughable; individuals strutting around like "peacocks" predicated on a label, accomplishing nothing. Reminds me of an instance re: a flock of geese, swimming down a small lake. The lead geese swimming along, head in the air was not cognizant that one goose that had been a follower, had flown over the flocl in the opposite direction with the flock now following the new leader. The original leader, two times later , flys over the flock attempting to regain the leadership; each time, the flock just did a
    n about face, and kept moving. Eventually the goose finally realized that he was no longer the leader, joining the swimming flock. There are lots of individuals in our society just like this goose, who find it difficult to accept the fact that circumstances change and that they need to move on.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(india) Private Limited
    Generally, as Mukunda says, filtered leaders are preferable being a tried whereas the unfiltered are not. However, this alone cannot be a success factor as evidenced by presence of achievers under each catagory. What matters is the strength of character and the ledership traits of the individual.
    Mukunda calls Jack Welch a leader of " low individual impact" as he feels anyone else would have performed similarly. The future prediction is shrouded in mystery as it could even have been otherwise.
    Yes, selection process for leadership positions is a very serious and critical exercise and extreme cautionary steps have to be laid down and followed. You can't compromise on any requirement considered necessary.
    • T Noye
    • Chairman & iCEO
    I think a key point was, "Match the leader's characteristics to your situation and remove them from power when situations change." Every company and situation therein may call for a specific style of leadership. Example; a turn around artist is only good for a short period of time. They will need replaced once the turnaround is complete.
    • Eric McNulty
    • Richer Earth
    This is an interesting article though I do think that the argument falls to the confusion of "leader" as one who occupies a senior position to "leader" as one who exhibits certain behaviors which inspire to people to follow (though in full disclosure I must say that I have not yet read the book). Simply placing one's posterior in the seat of power does not necessarily convey (or always require) leadership ability.

    If our filtering is eliminating true leaders, it is time to clean the filter.
    • mustafa kiyak
    • student, ankara university
    I read the article and enjoyed it,the difference between filtered and unfiltered investigated at last.Extreme leaders are the area that I unpatiently wanted to study.specificly bad extreme leaders and theirs effects on society.
    I want to tell mukunda this study valuable
    • Hussein
    • Strategic Marketing Manager, Honeywell
    To look at the future, we try to look at our base and our 2 past points and with reasonable assumptions we can project the next 2 points. We set our expectations on where the next 2 points based on past history and a solid base; hence, if one is expected to continue to do well and we end up doing well, one might expect to receive a "good job" pat on the back. However, if an "uncut" diamond or amateur with no previous polishing or grooming sets an unexpected (and unprecedented) performance, Gautum places a high points ... High impact often has to do with expectations as well. Every dog has its day. So what happens if the new kid on the block is expected to run another round around the block? According to Gautum, we might want to start looking for a new runner.
    • Michael Hogan
    • Senior Advisor, The Regulatory Assistance Project
    Contrived academic claptrap. I was a management trainee at GE under Reg Jones, prior to Jack Welch's selection, and my mother worked for GE for many years before that. Welch's selection itself was a departure from decades of GE leadership style, and he proceeded within only two or three years to radically overhaul the culture of the company. A company that for decades had matched its earnings growth to GDP (and arguably vice versa) suddenly outperformed GDP every year for 20 years; that same company, which had grown kudzu-like to an employee base of 350,000, was nearly overnight shrunk to under 200,000. It would be hard to imagine a more stark discontinuity - it is utter nonsense to suggest that anyone else chosen by GE management would have performed as well as he did. Jones picked him precisely because no one else in GE senior management at the time would have had the stones to do what Welch did. Other examples cited are equally
    specious - Teddy Roosevelt may have been thrust into the job by an assassination, but he'd been preparing for it his whole adult life rising through New York politics, and the same can be said of Winston Churchill. In 1939 Churchill may have been a "failed Conservative politician" but he'd been Lord of the Admiralty and a leader of the Tory party for many years prior to his "wilderness period." These kinds of contrived categorizations are useless, particularly when they're based on bad data. Garbage in, garbage out.
    • nosapience
    • Resoucerer
    Brilliant and thank you for brightening my day.

    What of course you've said is that 'leadership' as an entity has absolutely no value whatsoever.

    I particularly like the political narratives that when it doesn't matter, any vacuous organizational tourist without any purposeful talent can one day suddenly find themselves as leader. You've only got to know a little US political history to see that one in action!

    But when the muda hits the fan in a big way, the leader quickly finds himself replaced by someone who is actually really good at what physically needs doing - old school skill beats fashionable dogma.

    If you replace the word 'leadership' with another word say 'hairdressing' the narrative up top makes equal if not more sense. At least hairdressing, unlike leadership, has a genuine social purpose.
    • Anonymous
    When I causally stated one day to my boss, a Harvard Alum, that "most of these overpaid CEO's could be replaced by a team of highly motivated top ten grads from Harvard, Stanford or Wharton at the same salary" He replied" it would not work..human beings need one top leader ,whether skilled or not ,whereby the buck ultimately stops. Someone that will say NO" He claimed a team approach would not work.
    • Philip Varghese
    • Manager, HPG

    Although filtered or unfiltered leaders - having done well at a particular period of time; when takes up the same/ similar position at a different period of time, had performed poorly. Reasons could be:

    1. Their own personal form/ mental make up might had changed.
    2. The times had changed and the equations might had changed so much that the previous style/ formula and strategies need not work so much anymore.
    3. People's/ markets'/media's/ other players' needs/ interests might had changed that the scale or style of the previous success need not be enough anymore.
    4. Dire situations like War/ emergency/ Crisis can bring the best out of the ones that are natural leaders - unfiltered as referred here - and may be up to the task and not ready to be caved in by those situations. But the regular - so called filtered leaders - are more power agents/ brokers of various constituencies and less of leaders - managing powers and equations - may not be ready or willing to take risks and would be reluctant leaders in such situations.

    Just a few thoughts.