The consensus in social science is that institutional leaders rarely have a significant impact, good or bad, because they tend to go through a filtering process that's likely to produce a capable and competent candidate. In Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda explains when individuals in leadership roles do make a difference. Mukunda recently spoke with U.S. News about significant leaders, the traits embodied by the great ones, and how the presidential candidates measure up. Excerpts:
When do leaders matter?
When they're different from the alternatives. Leaders of big organizations are chosen pretty carefully. [General Electric] spends 20 years evaluating all the potential CEOs and at the end of the day they pick somebody. They have five finalists, and they've all passed through this 20 year evaluation. So how different could they possible be? [But] if somebody comes into power and they didn't pass through these long series of filters—they come in from the outside or they inherit the company—that sort of person can be very, very different from all the other people who might have had the job. And that person could have a really big impact, because they're different.
Is the process the same in business and politics?
The idea of filtering out candidates for leadership is the same. But every organization has its own filter. So in GE you work your way up the ranks. But in politics, you've got to win the election. The filtering is the political elites. If you spend a lot of time at the upper levels of the government, the political elites have gotten to know you. And if they know there's something about you that they really wouldn't want in a president, they've got ways to stop you. But if they don't know you, if you come in from the outside, like Abraham Lincoln, and you've only spent a couple of years in government, they don't know what you're like or what you'll do.
Is there an individual who has changed the course of history by being "different"?
You can't think of a better example than Abraham Lincoln. He is elected and his only national political office is two years in Congress. He's as close to an unknown as you're ever going to get. The most likely alternative to Lincoln is William Seward, who becomes Lincoln's secretary of state. Seward was a two-term governor of New York, two-term senator from New York, founding father of the Republican Party, a real national figure. Seward wants to cede Fort Sumter to the South, pull the federal troops out. He says the South will come to its senses and come back to the Union and we'll never have to fight. And Lincoln says, no, we have to draw the line in the sand. He announces that they're going to send in an unarmed resupply convoy, and this causes South Carolina to fire on the fort, which starts the war and also unifies the country behind the war effort. So that different choice that Lincoln made completely changes the course of American history forever.
What makes a great leader?
They combine two character traits that are fundamentally antagonistic that most people can't combine. If you're Abraham Lincoln and you are a one-term congress person, and the most prominent Republican in the country with a national reputation tells you, "I think we should give up Fort Sumter," and you say based on your own judgment "You're wrong, we're doing it my way," that's incredible self confidence. These guys are so self confident that they can chart their own course when everyone else tells them they're wrong. But that's only half the story. The people who are not just extreme but great somehow at the same time have intellectual humility. They're able to internalize the fact that they might be wrong and listen to other people and take them seriously.
Is President Obama an unfiltered leader?
Absolutely. What we really had to judge him on is less than four years in the Senate. That's really not a lot of time. So the question would be is how different is he from other people that may have held the job. Everybody agrees that Obamacare was a big thing. A lot of people hate it and a lot of people love it, but nobody says that it was small. We just saw a few weeks ago what a gifted politician Bill Clinton is. But Clinton was a filtered leader. He is as good at politics as anyone who's ever lived, but he wasn't able to pass healthcare reform. Whereas Barack Obama, not a political animal from birth, could get it done. Normal politicians don't do anything that's majorly unpopular. Otherwise they wouldn't pass through the filters, they wouldn't get re-elected.