Leader Experience is Overrated

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The best leaders are outsiders who don’t have a long experience.

Wait, what? That sounds counter-intuitive.

But this is exactly the argument that Harvard Professor Gautam Mukunda makes in his innovative book “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” Based on his research examining military, political, and business leaders, Mukunda classifies leaders into two camps: filtered leaders are insiders who follow a normal career progression, and unfiltered leaders are outsiders who get their jobs through unusual circumstances. The findings show that unfiltered leaders are the most effective leaders, but are also the least effective leaders. Filtered leaders are neither highly effective nor highly ineffective- they produce expected results. So if you imagine a bell curve of leader effectiveness, non-experienced leaders fall at the bottom and at the top, while filtered leaders occupy the middle of the curve. That is why Mukunda calls unfiltered leaders ‘high-risk high-reward’ leaders: they can either make genius decisions that change the future for the best, or they can crash and burn and bring their organizations and countries down with them.

One of the most interesting test of Mukunda’s theory is the assessment of the effectiveness of American presidents over history. Filtered presidents are those that had long experience in positions of national prominence such as being elected as a congressman, state representative or governor, or being appointed to a cabinet position or as vice-president. This criteria applies to presidents such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe who Mukunda labels as modal leaders because they were neither extremely good nor bad. Instead, they performed as most other leaders with their experience would have performed. On the other hand, George Washington’s only experience was as the leader of the colonialists in the fight for independence. He is an unfiltered leader that ended up having a huge impact on the history of the United States that no one else in his position could have had.

Mukunda takes into account the historians’ consensus ranking of presidents and applies his criteria of filtered and unfiltered leaders across history. He concludes that of the top six U.S. presidents, five were unfiltered, with Thomas Jefferson being the only exception. At the same time, seven out of the bottom eight presidents were unfiltered, proving that unfiltered leaders have great variance- they can be either very good or very bad. The vast majority of the 25 presidents that landed in the middle in terms of their performance were unfiltered leaders with tons of experience.

Mukunda interprets the findings by suggesting that experience and knowledge are exactly what prevents filtered leaders from approaching situations differently from everyone else. Lack of experience is what leads unfiltered leaders to think differently about situations and not feel beholden to certain ways of doing things.

But what are the situations that allow unfiltered leaders to soar into high performance and what situations lead them to plummet into mediocrity? Whether the goal is fighting for dominance or just trying to survive plays a big role, according to Mukunda. “If you want to grow to dominance, you need an unfiltered leader, someone who will think differently and take risks. The problem is, the risk taking might not pay off. But you can’t change that. Start-ups, where the most likely outcome is bankruptcy, and companies on the precipice are good situations for unfiltered leaders. But if you want to be in business in 50 years, pick a filtered leader, and remember, if you have five top candidates, it probably doesn’t matter which one you pick,” he proposed in an HBR article.

If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you know that I will try to link these views to humility. Professor Mukunda suggests that unfiltered leaders are successful when they are to ‘reject a false choice and accept a new option”. They do so by combining two seemingly opposite character traits: extreme humility and high self-confidence. They are uncertain enough to accept advice with humility, and resolute enough to reject advice with confidence. But most importantly, they know what situation requires which.

PS: Speaking of unfiltered American presidents, I know that you are all thinking about the same person. Since I don’t write about politics, I will not get into this. The last thing I want is political mudslinging in the comments sections. Professor Makunda, however, addresses this issue in an article written right after the last Presidential elections.

Putting it All Together

Unfiltered leaders who don’t have a lot of experience can lead their organizations to immense success or dismal failure. Filtered leaders who come to the job with a long resume perform satisfactorily but are not be remembered for anything remarkable. Combining humility with confidence can help leaders with little experience achieve significance.

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Check out my book “Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders,” recently published by Health Administration Press.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you are interested in Executive Coaching, please contact me at amer.kaissi@trinity.edu

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Amer Kaissi is an Executive Coach, Author, and Professor at the Department of Healthcare Administration at Trinity University. For more information, please visit www.amerkaissi.com.