Do great leaders need experience or opportunity?

Recent research suggests that the best leaders tend to be outsiders who don't have a great deal of experience.

It was recently suggested that the best leaders tend to be “outsiders who don't have a great deal of experience”, which runs contrary to any business continuity plan that I have ever seen crafted.

Business continuity planning (BCP), simply put, is a way of identifying an organization's exposure to internal and external risks and creating a plan to mitigate against them.

The goal of BCP is to prevent an interruption, but with the understanding that they occur, and so includes planning for a smooth recovery. How to weather these storms and maintaining competitive advantage is the trick.

It is also called business continuity and resiliency planning (BCRP). A business continuity plan is essentially a roadmap for continuing operations under some adverse condition. The condition may be a threat against the firm's intellectual property, or physical assets, or just about any other risk that would interrupt normal operations.

Sometimes the asset at risk is a key person.

My experience, and not doubt many of yours, will include either the grooming of a specific successor within the IT organization or, in the case where a sufficiently experienced person is not available, the bringing in of a replacement from a competing firm.

The typical business continuity plan associated with a key person has a very detailed description of the requirements for the successor. In the case of the firm's chief technologist, one of these requirements will be ample experience.

An example of the risk of the loss of a key person is Apple's recent loss of the visionary Steve Jobs. Certainly, Tim Cook has experience, and then some, to be the CEO. But Cook and Jobs are really nothing alike.

Cook worked his way up the technology ranks while Jobs took a very unconventional path to the top job at Apple.

The idea here is that  leaders are vetted, or as Gautam Mukunda suggests, 'filtered' – he defines this as an insider who climbs up the ranks in a normal progression. His term for outsiders is 'unfiltered' leaders who, “either were outsiders with little experience or got their jobs through fluke circumstances”.

Mukunda's research suggests that highly filtered leaders tended to perform the most consistently in the middle of the pack. That is to say, they are neither great nor horrendous. In essence, experience would be a good predictor of mediocre performance.

To be a break-out leader, he further suggests, you need to find someone who would be a high risk, high reward bet.  Mukunda's example -- Abraham Lincoln -- flows from his research on US presidents; I would offer Steve Jobs as a modern example.

Also, his research suggests that the filtered leader would perform best in stable environments while unfiltered would better adapt to the extreme or sudden change. This is because the unfiltered leader would feel free to disrupt the status quo.

While Cook, with a long history of running IT operations, fits the bill as the 'filtered' example, he has done well thus far in the year after Jobs' passing, which has certainly been turbulent for the firm.
Choosing the best leader is the wrong approach. You can choose either leaders who are likely to win big or lose big, or one who will definitely be good at his or her job, but definitely will not be great. I am hoping that Cook is able to prove Mukunda wrong, if only this one time.

The implications with regard to the coming elections are evident. What do you think?


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