What's the Difference Between a Fabulous Boss and a Mediocre Boss? Not Much

Gautam Mukunda |Author, "Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter"
Monday, 8 Oct 2012 | 11:53 AM ET

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Why the worst and best leaders have more in Common than you think by Gautam Mukunda author of "Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter."

Would you want your CEO to be someone who lied constantly? Who humiliated his employees?

Whose obsession with the paint colors in a factory had helped produce significant cost overruns on a major project?

No one would want a leader with such a record. He would surely be a disaster.

But the CEO I’m describing, of course, is Steve Jobs, who built Apple into the most valuable company in history.

Anyone would want that result. But would you have hired the person who produced it?

This is just an example of a larger phenomenon.

The best and worst leaders are often surprisingly similar, and our efforts to block the worst from power may also hinder us from getting the best ones. For both great and awful leaders, if the people charged with choosing a leader had known what he or she was going to do (not the results of his or her decisions, but the decisions themselves) in advance, they would likely have picked someone else. Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party in 1860 because he was seen as the most conservative (that is, the least anti-slavery) major Republican. He was thought to be more acceptable to moderates than the supposedly more radical William Henry Seward, a far more accomplished politician who was Lincoln’s main rival for the Republican nomination.

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But when the crisis came, rather than let the South secede in peace, it was Lincoln – not Seward – who was willing to plunge the country into war. And though the circumstances were drastically different, by comparison, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he replaced most of its board of directors and eliminated 70 percent of its products – a change in strategy so radical even his handpicked board never voted to support it. We know how those stories worked out, of course, and we remember Lincoln and Jobs as geniuses. But their stories didn’t have to go that way.

"The best and worst leaders are often surprisingly similar, and our efforts to block the worst from power may also hinder us from getting the best ones." -Author, "Indispensable", Gautam Mukunda

Think about it like this; when a leader takes a brave and iconoclastic stand, defies the opinion of the experts, and takes her company (or country) to incredible success, we say she must have incredible insight. She knew the right thing to do when no one else did. But most of the time, if all the experts disagree with someone – they’re right. That’s why they’re experts. And there’s no consistent way to tell, in advance, when the experts are right and when they’re wrong. How could there be? If there were, everyone (including those same experts) would use it! So the best leaders do things that no one else would do, and the successes when they’re right take them to glory. And the worst leaders do things that no one else would do, and the failures when they’re wrong take them to infamy. That’s the first of the two key similarities of the best and worst leaders.

The second is their paths to power. After all, leaders aren’t chosen randomly. Lots of people want to lead, so every organization, from a company to a country, has a process it uses to choose among candidates for leadership. A bad leader can be catastrophic, so most organizations put a lot of effort into filtering out people they don’t want.

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Yet somehow, both the best and worst leaders are able to evade those filters, gaining power despite their willingness to do things that the very people who chose them would oppose. Often, that translates into a relatively short career. If we’re talking about a president, he or she probably spent little time in senior political offices before entering the White House – like Lincoln, who had only two years in Congress. If it’s a CEO, then he or she was probably a founder, hired from outside the company, inherited the job or reached the top in some other way that allowed her to hide what she will do.

So the worst leaders are generally those who were not thoroughly evaluated before they were given power. Sometimes unfiltered leaders are incompetent or otherwise incapable. Sometimes they simply make mistakes that someone else would have avoided. But the best leaders, too, make unique choices and are able to do so because they weren’t thoroughly evaluated – it’s just that their choices work.

So these two opposite ends on the spectrum of leader success are often two sides of the same coin.

Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks

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