Wednesday, November 06, 2013

An Indispensable Look At Leadership Through A New Lens: "Indispensabe: When Leaders Really Matter" by Gautam Mukunda

There are miles and miles of bookshelves sagging under the weight of books that discuss leadership.  It is rare when a new work arrives that sheds a new and illuminating light on the topic.  "Indispensable" is just such a novelty.  Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda has taken a case study approach to examining leaders from a variety of fields - military, government, science and business - whose actions and leadership choices have had a tremendous impact on the organizations they have led.

The author's thesis is both simple and revolutionary.  He proposes that most leaders have come up through the filtering system of the organization they eventually lead.  He calls these leaders in the middle of the Bell Curve "Modal Leaders."  They tend to make choices that are predictable and that steer the ship which they captain in ways that produce incremental change.  In contradistinction to Modal Leaders, "High-Impact Leaders" are outliers.  They tend to arrive in their position of leadership having been minimally filtered through the usual vetting processes.  They have the capacity to make sweeping and revolutionary changes - for good or for ill.  This process of screening and filtering leadership candidates the author dubs "Leadership Filtration Process (LTP)."  His theory of impactful and indispensable leadership he names "Leadership Filtration Theory (LFT)

The structure and methodology of the book is to take case studies of High-Impact Leaders who tend to be Unfiltered and Extreme, and to compare their actions with contemporaries who are Modular Leaders in order to analyze how different are the choices made by the these Extreme Leaders.

Early in the book, Mukunda makes the case that among the U.S. Presidents, those universally acknowledged to be among the most effective Presidents - Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson - were all Unfiltered candidates.  At the other end of the scale, those considered the least effective  - Tyler, Fillmore, Grant, G.W Bush, Andrew Johnson, Pierce and Harding - were also unfiltered.  In the following chapters, he examines in detail how these high impact leaders were chosen and how they chose to lead in a variety of  crises.

The rest of the book takes a deep dive into examining the cases of a variety of both Filtered and Unfiltered Leaders - including Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill and a smattering of business and science leaders.

In wrapping up his explanation of the ramifications of LFT, Professor Mukunda prescribes situations in which Extreme Unfiltered Leaders should be considered to lead an enterprise, and situations where it would be unwise.  I found myself pondering the broad personal and professional implications of this theory.  As an executive recruiter, I serve a filtering function for my client companies - presenting to them the candidates for leadership that  I have determined best fit the criteria and parameters the client has set.  I am still processing how best to help my clients utilize the insights from Leadership Filtration Theory to determine how much of a risk to take in setting those search parameters.

The author has put a lot of meat on the plate for his readers to ingest and to digest.  I am grateful for the tastiness and nutritional value of this literary meal.  As part of a healthy diet of reading in the field of leadership, I find this book to be "Indispensable"!



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