Extreme Leaders

I enjoyed this podcast with Harvard professor Gautum Mukunda, the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter .  The conversation focuses on the idea of the “extreme leader,” which he defines as the leader who is different from every other plausible leader or candidate for a job or leadership position.

Mukunda changes the paradigm.

Instead of discussing leaders as either good or bad, he looks at them as either somebody who is high-quality, prepared, well vetted and will probably be good or somebody very different, from the outside, potentially unlikely or unknown, who is a wild-card and will either be great, very good or very bad.

The latter are the extreme leaders he lauds when the times and circumstances, indicate your company, country or team is in serious trouble. At these times, he posits, it makes more sense to go with the wild card than to go with a high quality well known choice.

He uses three examples in the podcast Lincoln, Churchill and Jamie Dimon. All three are very compelling and he re-tells the standard story and adds significant nuance. For instance, in the case of Lincoln he was so obscure that he wasn’t really on the radar to lead the country, but what was known would have led people to believe he would have made opposite choices. In fact, he was considered the more conciliatory of the potential candidates for president.

Same with Jamie Dimon, who JP Morgan hired looking for charisma, which he has, but his great strength was the conservative decisions he made.

The podcast made me think of recent coaching hires and how they might play out.  In particular, the Jamie Dimon example, where he was a well known entity, but an outsider to the company, which qualified him as a wild card choice. Mukunda focuses on the selection process and when it is wise to go with the known or a high-quality insider, and when it is crucial to take a chance with a potential “extreme leader.”

After listening to the podcast I bought the book.