Leader Succession: Insider vs. Outsider

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Today’s presidential race has pitted candidates claiming to be insiders vs outsiders, with not many voters overjoyed by any of the prospects. Corporations also go through this process of deciding whether to promote from inside or bring in a new face, especially as the turnover of Fortune 500 CEOs has generally declined since 2001. It made me wonder, are there any patterns that might help us, as voters and shareholders, decide who is best equipped to be leader.

Gautam Mukunda tackled the issue years ago, publishing Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter in 2012. He theorizes that that institutions – our political system and companies – go through what he calls a Leader Filtration Process (LFP) to screen leader-candidates. The Modal candidates have been filtered every step of the way by institutions; the Extremes are outliers who have not. Applied to politics, the Model leader is the consensus Insider who worked his/her way up from (say) local leader to national leader and then is ready to run for President; e.g., Bill Clinton would qualify. On the other hand, people like Donald Trump are Outsiders unfiltered by the “system†members. Mukunda says that the Outsiders tend to succeed because of charisma, wealth, connections, etc., and tend to have psychological profiles which sometimes include narcissism (for success) and disorders, such as depression or paranoia.

He measures the extent to which the Presidents are Insiders or Outsiders and correlates it to ratings of their effectiveness. (He also companies business leaders using similar approaches.) His research finds that the Outsiders tend to be rated at the top of the list (e.g., Lincoln) and at the bottom (e.g., Harding), with the Model leaders centered in the middle.

The key take-away, however, is that leadership effectiveness mostly depends on the commonality of the situation in which the leader was filtered (e.g., peace-time) and the situation he/she faces as a leader (e.g., war-time). It’s the characteristics that the person that will enable the person to handle tomorrow’s issues that are the key to success. This is probably more important today than ever before. The world our potential leaders have been “trained†to address over the past years may not reflect the VUCA (i.e., Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world/economy that we face today. The 2008 recession, the rise of ISIS, the transformation of the economy by artificial intelligence capabilities, “gig†workforce values, etc. are issues that weren’t really on anyone’s table until recent times.

Mukunda concludes with 6 guidelines, which are worth heeding:

  • When evaluating unfiltered candidates, you know less than you think you do
  • Modal leaders are likely to be successful under normal circumstances
  • When creative new approaches are needed, the best leaders are likely to be unfiltered.
  • Unfiltered extremes can fail because of the same traits that let them bypass the FLP
  • Filtered Modal leaders can fail when circumstances change
  • Traits that prevent passage through the LFP can sometimes produce great successes in office.

In sum, the best way to pick a leader to solve tomorrow’s challenges is to focus not on the past, but the future: will he/she have the characteristics to address them in a future context that you can only guess.

What do you think? To what extend do you think these insights bear on today’s election – or your next choice of a leader for your company? Share with us!

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