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.

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.

Image courtesy fo Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.