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What Kind of Leadership Do You Want For This Job? January 11, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, strategy.
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A few weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast from Harvard Business Review’s HBR IdeaCast about leadership (http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/11/the-indispensable-unlikely-lea.html), featuring Gautam Makunda, author of “Indispensible: When Leaders Really Matter.” Professor Makunda uses historical examples to illustrate the importance of context in determining how effective a leader will be. While Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were certainly extraordinary leaders, the circumstances helped define their greatness. Different leaders may not have been nearly as effective in those times, but those same leaders might not be effective in different times.

Churchill is a particularly interesting example. Although he had been in government service in senior leadership positions for most of his adult life, and was respected as a brilliant and hard-working minister, he was never seriously considered a leading candidate to become Prime Minister before World War II. He was essentially a last resort after other highly-regarded, experienced, and well-qualified politicians resigned or refused the position.

As it turned out, Churchill’s charisma and iconic presence in the months after Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain was exactly what was needed and certainly helped save the day. However, in the elections immediately following the war Churchill was defeated, and although he would return as PM in the early 1950s he was less effective managing domestic affairs during a period of imperial decline.

Professor Makunda suggests that there are lessons here for companies who are considering candidates for leadership positions. Some positions should be filled by a “safe choice,” a person with deep expertise who came up through the ranks, has accumulated all the “right” experiences, and has been thoroughly vetted in the selection process. The interesting thing about a position that can be filled by a safe choice is that it really doesn’t matter much who you choose from the pool of candidates because they’re all essentially equally qualified. That’s OK when the circumstances are not exceptional or demanding and there’s little downside to choosing the “wrong” person.

However, the safe choice with a conventional background is far less likely to have a significant impact on the organization (positive or negative), particularly during periods of transition, ambiguity, or turmoil. This is when companies might benefit from the perspective of an outsider with new or unconventional ideas, or what Professor Makunda would call an “extreme leader.” The risk is greater because the experience of an extreme leader may not be directly applicable to the open position, but the potential gain is also greater. The company must decide if they’re willing to take that chance.

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