Do Most Leaders Really Matter, or Make Any Difference?’s The Corner is dedicated to examining the leadership and management. This week we feature the writing of Gautam Mukunda, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School and author of the book “Indespensible: When Leaders Really Matter.”

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Gautam Mukunda

That book addresses the question of whether individual leaders create history or are created by it.

In this excerpt below from chapter 1, Mukunda posits that most individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead.

“Social scientists in every field have identified different versions of the same three forces that, together, minimize the impact of individual leaders. Although these three forces have only sometimes been explicitly identified, they underpin every social science theory that argues or assumes the dispensability of individual leaders. The combination of all three forces usually means that individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead. The forces are:

  1. The external environment. The external environment forces leaders to act in response to its pressures, leaving individual leaders little control or influence on policy and implementation.
  2. Internal organizational dynamics. Leaders respond to the bureaucratic politics and interests of constituencies within their organization, making the identity of the leader unimportant as long as the internal dynamics of the organization remain constant.
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  3. Leader selection systems. The process by which leaders come to power homogenizes the pool of potential leaders. Different people might have acted differently, but those who would have chosen differently never gain power in the first place.

Forces 1 and 2—the external and internal forces—can be enormously strong and severely limit a leader's impact. This problem is compounded by force 3: how organizations choose leaders. Organizations tend to select their leaders carefully, so managers become "more and more homogenous" the higher you go. Or, to put it another way, organizations try to weed out the crazies, the incompetent, or anyone who just doesn't fit in. That means that CEOs and other leaders tend to be drawn from a pool of candidates that contains little variation. Established interests within organizations move to control the succession process to ensure that the winners are conducive to their interests. Management is important, but individual managers need not be.

The same is true of other selection processes that "filter" the candidates for leadership. The process will tend to prevent people with unique personalities from gaining leadership positions, or the state's governing political ideology will ensure that only a certain type of person can come to power, or the process of choosing a leader will match person to circumstance.

The upshot of the three forces? Some person must fill the role of leader, but which person may not matter at all.”

Section: Standard
Word Count: 662
Copyright Holder:
Copyright Year: 2019
Is Based On: