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Gautam Mukunda is an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard Business School.  Before joining the business school he was the National Science Foundation Synthetic Biology ERC Postdoctoral Fellow resident[…]

Just as you wouldn’t want to pick a baseball player for your team without an adequate record of past performance, you wouldn’t want to pick a leader by taking a leap into the unknown either.

Gautam Makunda: There’s a paradox about the way we think about leaders, and the paradox goes like this; if you're a practitioner, if you're a politician or a soldier or a businessperson or almost anything, and you want to understand events. People almost always say “You’ve got to understand leaders. You've got to understand the person in charge and what's going on inside his or her head if you want to know what's going on." The paradox is that social scientists, people who spend their whole lives studying this kind of issue, almost all say that actually leaders explain almost nothing, that to understand who is in charge of a company or a country or a military unit really tells you almost nothing about what the outcome is going to be. Most of the time if you replace the person who runs the company with the next most likely person to run the company, so his or her number two or the person who almost got the job, the company will do about the same. But every once in a while leaders matter an enormous amount. And this is the paradox; it's not sort of a little bit, a little bit more, a little bit more than that. It's really not at all or a huge amount. 

So Leader Filtration Theory is basically the way you explain when you get this sort of individual person who makes a difference. We've all dealt with sort of bosses and people who took credit for something that their organization did but they had nothing to do with it, right? We can all think of people like that. And so to me, that's not leader impact. If it would have happened without this person, without him or her, if the events would have played out exactly the same way then it doesn't matter to us who was in charge. So when we're thinking about leader impact, we're thinking about; this person did things that other people in the exact same situation would not have done. To me, that's the leader impact. So where do you get a leader who does things that no one else would do? How can someone like that run your organization?  
Think about GE. To be the CEO of GE you've got to spend more than 20 years inside GE because GE doesn't hire anyone from outside GE to be CEO, and you're going to get evaluated by your superiors, by your peers, by your subordinates constantly for 20 years. And at the end of that 20-year process, there'll be five finalists for the job of CEO and they'll pick one. The first thing you should believe is that they're all really good at their job. The second thing you should believe about those five is it doesn't matter which one of the five they pick because how different could they possibly be? They've all made their way through 20 years of GE.

Alright, so that's what the sort of prototypical normal organization looks like where you have all these people and they're all the same. How does that change? And I think the answer is you can get someone who's really, really different when the process to pick a leader picks someone even though it really doesn't know all that much about him or her. But when you want to give someone power, right, and at the end of the day this is what this is about. Leadership is about power. Not in the sense of what do you do with it, but that's what you're trusting someone with when you make them a leader of your organization. You're trusting them with the ability to make decisions where you can't stop them anymore. Well then you want to know what someone is like before you give them power. You want to know what they're like under pressure, when the lights are off in the back rooms when it really, really matters what they decide and no one could stop them. And you can't find that out about someone in an hour or a day, or even a week. You find that out about someone, you find out what someone's really like by sitting next to them in rooms where you watch them under pressure, and usually that takes years. But if you bring in an outsider, someone you don't know anything about, and you given them power in the organization, then you don't know what they're going to do when the chips are down.

And we can think of examples of people like that, sort of on the good side, right? Abraham Lincoln had spent only two years in Congress. So that's his only national political office is two years in Congress before he becomes President of the United States. He got chosen for a variety of reasons, but the most important one was that he was able to portray himself as the least anti-slavery Republican, but of course once he became President of the United States they found out that he was nothing of the sort.

The flip side, let's take another American President, Woodrow Wilson. And Woodrow Wilson, like, he was even less experienced in national politics than Abraham Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson spent only one-and-a-half years as governor of New Jersey before he became President of the United States. Takes the United States to victory in the first World War, tries to negotiate – negotiates the Treaty of Versailles with the European Powers and then tries to bring the United States into the League of Nations and create a lasting peace after the First World War. And of course the United States doesn't enter the League of Nations; it fails to enter. And it fails to enter because Woodrow Wilson is so rigid, so inflexible, so dogmatic, that even though almost 80 senators wanted the United States to enter the League of Nations he was unable to make – to get it in. And so no normal politician is completely unable to give up even the smallest thing in order to get 98 percent of what they want. But Woodrow Wilson was like that. If the Democratic Party had known that they were choosing someone with that kind of a personality, they surely would never have chosen him. But they did not know and they could not know because they didn't have enough time to observe him in political office to see that.  

And so you get people like this when you make a leap into the unknown, when you... by picking one of these new people. And the thing, of course, is that most often we don't realize that we're making a leap into the unknown. We believe that we know someone much better than we actually do incredibly quickly. You meet someone for five minutes and you think, "Oh, I know that person. I got a feel for their personality." But how could you really? And so the paradox of this is, so often we trust people with the chance to make decisions that affect the fate of companies, scientific enterprises, or even entire countries without understanding who it is that we are trusting. And when we do that, we open up the doors to both great triumph and great disaster.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd