What It Means to be the Right Leader for the Right Times
Winston Churchill's career reveals that he was pretty consistently wrong on issue after issue, place after place, time after time, and he was wrong for the same reasons he was right in May of 1940.
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 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies. He received his PhD from MIT in Political Science and an A.B. in Government from Harvard, magna cum laude. His research focuses on leadership, international relations, and the social and political implications of technological change. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and MIT's Security Studies Program and Program on Emerging Technologies. He is the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.
I think that looking for the best leader is impossible in a sense. It's the wrong way of thinking about the problem. People tend to think of Winston Churchill as one of the great leaders of the 20th century, and in May, 1940, Winston Churchill was the only person who could have kept Great Britain in the war against Adolf Hitler. He was a hero. At that moment, at that point in time he was the best person for the job.
But the rest of Winston Churchill's career reveals that he was pretty consistently wrong on issue after issue, place after place, time after time, and he was wrong for the same reasons he was right in May of 1940. He reacted incredibly harshly to anything he perceived as a threat to the British Empire, even when it wasn't really such a threat. So he was the right leader for that time and the wrong leader for other times. So what you need to think about is who is the right leader for this context, for this moment in time? Do they have the right skill-set, the right attitudes, and that could be completely wrong for a different situation.
So the second thing you want to think about is how do you try to maximize your odds of success in picking someone who is good, even if they are the right person, picking the right, right person as it were. Well I think you can do a few things. You can find someone who was a successful filtered leader in an organization you respect. So for example, it's pretty routine for someone who came in second in the race to be the CEO of GE to get offers to work as a leader in other organizations.
Now quite often that doesn't work out. Some of these people have not done very well, but some of them have done very well. And what you're really doing when you're picking this person who came in number two is you are outsourcing your judgment of the right leader, right. What you're saying is I don't really know a lot about this person because I can't. They're not in my company. But I know that GE is good at the job at picking leaders and I know that that they have said, well, we think this guy is almost – or this woman is almost the right person. So their judgments pretty good and I trust their judgment, so I think this person is probably the right choice.
So you can in a sense outsource. You can rely on other people's sense. A third thing you might do is bring in a person for the number two position instead of the number one position. Then you get to know them better, then you work with them in an enclosed proximity and you can spend a lot of time deciding, well, is this really the right person for the job. If they are, then in a year or two you'll know it. And if they aren't, then you've limited the damage that can be done.
So there's sort of a variety of things you could look at in those scenarios and the other thing I think you can sort of think about as you're selecting leaders and sort of moving through this process is circumstance and situation are much more important than we often give them credit for being. Psychologists talk about the fundamental attribution error and you can get a sense for how powerful it is by the fact that it's called the fundamental attribution error. And it's this idea that when we think about situations and something happens, especially if something bad happens, right. We say, well, the fact that this person did something bad makes them a bad person.
But if you do something bad, psychologically you think it's because I'm in a bad situation. So for me it's situation but for that person it's about their bad nature, right. And so we need to remember is that in fact most of the time it's situation that's dominate over personality. So when we're thinking about leaders and we're thinking about who we want to choose, it's worth thinking about the fact that most of the time the impact of the leader is limited.
So what is the broader context that we're really addressing here? What is our top discussion about choosing a leader really about? Is it about picking a leader or is it about who are we and where are we going to go and how are we going to get there, and are we just – because we're afraid or unwilling or out of the habit of having that deeper discussion are we subsuming it in a discussion of Candidate A or Candidate B. You're probably better off having the deeper discussion.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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