Who Is Qualified For Leadership Greatness?
Most leaders, according to Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda, are fully vetted by their work and life experiences before being allowed to take a high-ranking leadership role. In his book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, Mukunda calls this vetting of leaders the Leadership Filtration Process, and labels leaders who have been through this process as "filtered" leaders. For obvious reasons, the presidents of the United States are usually among the most filtered leaders. Mukunda argues, however, that the best presidents are not necessarily the ones who were most "prepared" to take the position.
To be filtered for the position of President of the United States, for example, requires experience in positions of national prominence: membership in the House of Representatives or the Senate, appointments to cabinet positions or full-terms as vice president are all "filtering offices" that prepare someone to be President of the United States. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all spent more than 15 years in filtering offices before ascending to the presidency. George Washington, on the other hand, was an "unfiltered" president: His only experience before becoming president was as the leader of the colonialists in the fight for independence.
According to Mukunda, filtered leaders, such as Adams and Madison, are "modal" leaders — that is, they are neither extremely good nor bad but, instead, perform as most other leaders with their experience would perform. Jack Welch of GE, for example, is generally recognized as a great business leader, but Mukunda believes that given the stringent filtering required of any person who might be chosen to lead GE, any another candidate would have been at least nearly as successful as Welch.
Unfiltered leaders, Mukunda writes, have more extreme variances in their performance than modal leaders. They can be very bad or very good. At any rate, they will have the greatest impact. Mukunda calls his filtration-based theory of leadership performance the Leadership Filtration Theory (LFT), and he uses the history of the U.S. presidency to test its validity.
Testing the LFT
If the LFT is valid, the greatest American presidents will prove to be unfiltered leaders, rather than filtered modal leaders. Remember, however, that Mukunda’s theory is that unfiltered presidents have the greatest impact, positive or negative. Thus, LFT also predicts that the worst American presidents would prove to be unfiltered. Filtered presidents, according to Mukunda’s theory, would fit varying degrees of the descriptor "average."
Using the historians’ consensus ranking of U.S presidents and factoring in filtering, Mukunda’s theory seems to be borne out. Of the top six U.S. presidents, five were unfiltered. The only exception is Jefferson. At the bottom, seven out of eight were unfiltered. Of the 25 presidents deemed neither great nor terrible — the vast majority were filtered.
Once Mukunda introduces his theory and the supporting data, he plunges into five in-depth case studies that fully explain and elaborate on the theory. The case study on Abraham Lincoln explores the incredible extent to which Lincoln was unfiltered and how his unknown qualities made him a great president. In another case study, Mukunda explains that while Jefferson deserves to be known as a great president because of the Louisiana Purchase, in fact, any other President at that time would have done the same thing: Jefferson just happened to be in office when the extraordinary opportunity presented itself. This accident of history is how a filtered modal president slipped into the rankings of top U.S. presidents, Mukunda writes. The final three case studies dissect the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and, moving beyond the U.S. presidents, the leadership tenures of British Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Throughout, Mukunda shows how the LFT explains each man’s success or failure.
Indispensable’s ideas can be used to evaluate the likely impact and success of any candidate who wants to lead a nation, as Mukunda shows us in the last two chapters of one of the most innovative leadership books published since Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment.