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Unfiltered Leaders: Making the New Year about Real Change, Not More Polish


Several years ago, Harvard Business Review interviewed Gautam Mukunda, who is a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.

Two Buckets for Leaders

Based on his research, he says you can put leaders into two buckets:  filtered leaders and unfiltered leaders.  Filtered leaders are groomed by the so-called succession plan and do all the perfect things to climb the corporate ladder.  They listen to their executive coaches and package themselves for the next move up. We’ve all worked for one.

Mukunda says that such leaders “might be good, but they probably won’t be brilliant” (Harvard Business Review, October 2012, p. 30).  And most of the time, these filtered, perfect résumé leaders won’t perform any better than the other four candidates who didn’t get the job.  In short, they’re good at taking something successful and polishing the apple.  And looking the part while doing so.

Why Unfiltered Leaders Can Excel

However, it’s the unfiltered leaders, says Mukunda, that tend to excel.  They are also huge risks.  They tend not to have the perfect education or the experience for the job.  But either through fluke circumstances or being at the right place at the right time—they land the leadership role.  Abraham Lincoln, to state the obvious, was an unfiltered leader.  You could argue, I suppose, that most successful entrepreneurs are in some way unfiltered leaders.

Mukunda says that experience and knowledge are “precisely what prevent you from approaching situations any differently than other experienced people would.”  Thus filtered leaders make basically the same decisions:  “Even if they’re good decisions, their leadership doesn’t have impact.”

Mukunda’s provocative quote is about Thomas Jefferson, a filtered leader:  “He did a great job as president; he just didn’t matter that much.”  Mukunda goes on to say that Madison or Adams could have been just as effective.

I was strangely encouraged as I read Mukunda’s thesis.  I’ve been thinking a lot about 2015 and which parts of my life need real change (and not mere apple polishing).  I was motivated enough to create a short list called “Changes for Impact in 2015.”  It forced me to rethink my incremental goal setting and to put on paper (er, my smart phone) something more risky.  I’m not about to say what that is, other than my new goal for 2015 is to “Be like Abe.”

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About Dave Goetz

Dave Goetz is president of CZ Strategy, a strategic marketing firm that specializes in messaging strategy and brand publishing. Dave is the author of Native Tongue: Translating Your Messaging into the Language of Prospects (Big Snowy Media), and Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (HarperOne). He is also the founder of Big Snowy Media, a publishing imprint for CZ’s clients, and RealityRN, a social community for new nurses.

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