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Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter Hardcover – September 4, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“It makes for fascinating reading…” — Tom Friedman, The New York Times

“In his new book, Indispensable, Gautam Mukunda, of Harvard Business School, uses Lincoln to examine one of the liveliest debates in modern management—whether insiders or outsiders make better bosses.” — The Economist

“These insights should now be of considerable help to the future development of aspiring executives and those who coach them, and to those responsible for selecting a CEO most suited to mastering a looming challenge.” — Strategy and Leadership

“Gautam Mukunda, with his book Indispensable and its cornerstone leader filtration theory (LFT), provides a significant new contribution to, first, organization studies in general and, second, leadership theory in particular.” — Organization Studies, SAGE journals

“Associations seeking a CEO will benefit from Mukunda's leadership research and examples, as well as his six guidelines for increasing the chances of a successful hire…Mukunda's conclusions are likely to inspire rich dialogue among board members and CEOs.” — Associations Now Magazine (asae: The Center for Association Leadership)

“In reviewing the life of some of the greatest leaders in history, Gautam Mukunda offers us a vision of leadership that is fascinating and original.” — Business Digest (France)

ADVANCE PRAISE for Indispensable:

Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author, The Better Angels of Our Nature and How the Mind Works
Indispensable is indispensable—an eye-opening analysis of how we should evaluate leaders in our politics and our organizations, and a set of gripping narratives about some of the most fascinating people who have ever lived.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and presidential historian—
Indispensable provides a masterly, absorbing, and exceptionally original approach to the age-old study of leadership.”

Clayton M. Christensen, bestselling author, The Innovator’s Dilemma
“I have studied innovation and change from many dimensions. Somehow, however, I had simply assumed that the right leader can be selected to effect the changes required. Indispensable has taught me that I was woefully naive. This is a great book.”

Kenneth C. Frazier, Chairman, President, and CEO, Merck & Co—
Indispensable provides fascinating insights into how leaders are shaped by their unique personal and professional journeys and by the context of their times. Whether they were focused on saving countries, saving companies, or saving lives, the individuals profiled here are memorably illuminated through Mukunda’s sharp and engaging analysis.”

David Gergen, Professor of Public Service, Harvard Kennedy School; senior political analyst, CNN—
“Why do some leaders change the course of human events, while others find themselves not quite up to the task when history knocks? In a study that applies to business as well as to civil society and politics, Mukunda explores the ‘filtration’ systems through which we choose our leaders, providing fresh and fascinating insights.”

About the Author

Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School. Before joining the HBS faculty, he was the National Science Foundation’s SynBERC Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies. His research focuses on leadership, international relations, and the political, economic, and social implications of innovation and technological change.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1422186709
  • ISBN-13: 978-1422186701
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #649,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gautam Mukunda is an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard Business School. Before joining the business school he was the National Science Foundation Synthetic Biology ERC Postdoctoral Fellow resident at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies. He received his PhD from MIT in Political Science and an A.B. in Government from Harvard, magna cum laude. His research focuses on leadership, international relations, and the social and political implications of technological change. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and MIT's Security Studies Program and Program on Emerging Technologies.

Before graduate school he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company, where he focused on the pharmaceutical sector. He is Founding Managing Director of The Two Rivers Group, a strategy consulting firm focusing on applying insights from academia to private and public sector problems. He is on the Board of Directors and Chair of the Mentorship Committee of The Upakar Foundation, a national non-profit devoted to providing college scholarships to underprivileged students of South Asian descent. He is a Paul & Daisy Soros New American Fellow, an NSF IGERT Fellow, and a Next Generation Fellow of The American Assembly. He has published articles on leadership, military innovation, network-centric warfare, and the security and economic implications of synthetic biology in Security Studies, Parameters, Politics and the Life Sciences, Systems and Synthetic Biology, and the Washington Post. His first book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, was published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on September 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Mukunda contends that most individual leaders have little or no real impact on the organizations they lead. Few reach the levels of a Steve Jobs, Napoleon, or Martin Luther King. In most situations the person ending up in power is experienced and hired through structured processes most organization use to vet their leadership. Thus, 'Are individual leaders truly responsible for the end result, or do they just happen to be there, for better or for worse?'

'Filtered' (came up through the system) leaders are most likely to fail when the situation changes to something completely different from when they were passing through the filter. Eg. Chamberlain's experiences did not prepare him for Hitler, and he failed badly. Outside CEOs can sometimes improve corporate performance, but only when brought into a company in trouble. (They're too much of a gamble, however, when the organization is doing well.) Desperation, not discomfort, should be the signal that the organization should gamble with an unfiltered leader.

However, every once in a while, someone inexperienced or appointed in an unusual way comes to power - this person has the potential to become an unconventional, powerful leader such as a Hitler or Churchill. These 'unfiltered' leaders, unproven in their area of leadership, are in most cases the ones who matter when history is written. They are the ones that turn out very good or very bad.

Want to see lots of 'unfiltered' leaders in action? Just look at most any start-up - driven by that leader's values and personal agenda.

Three factors minimize the impact of leaders: 1)An external environment in which competitors limit the leader's discretion. 2)Internal organizational dynamics, bureaucratic politics, or constituents' interests.
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Format: Hardcover
Given the number of books already in print whose authors discuss leaders (Amazon offers 65,278) and leadership (89,946), I was curious to know to what extent (if any) Gautam Mukunda has anything new to share. It turns out he does: a focus on "those individuals who seem very different [significantly different] from everyone else who might have been in their shoes." He rigorously examined hundreds (thousands?) of leaders throughout history and, on the basis of his research, formulated what he calls the Leader Filtration Process (LFP).

It has two forms: Tight LFP (Modals) and Loose LFP (potential Extremes). Each form has defining characteristics. Mukunda juxtaposes the two in terms of major differences, according to six criteria: Length of career, frequency of evaluation, winner-take-all process, system's tolerance for failure, age of regime, and unique advantages. What occurred to as I read the introductory first chapter is how important [begin italics] context [end italics] is when determining which type of leader is needed at a given time, in the given circumstances, to achieve the given objective(s). High-impact leaders tend to be Extremes rather than Modals, whatever the nature and extent (if any) of their filtration may have been. That said, Mukunda suggests, "Unfiltered [or loosely filtered] leaders are likely to have impact [and they] will display more variance in performance than Filtered leaders." He tests his theory by examining the historical record and a rather diverse group of exemplars who include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Edward Lindley Wood, Jacky Fisher, Al Dunlap, Jamie Dimon, and Judah Folkman.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John Gibbs TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 30, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Most leaders, whatever they think or want to think, are ultimately dispensable, according to Gautam Mukunda in this book. The impact of individual leaders tends to be minimised by the external environment, internal organisational dynamics, and leader selection systems which filter out candidates who differ from the norm. It is only when the leader filtration process is bypassed that truly exceptional leaders are chosen.

In support of this assertion, the author tells the stories of a number of prominent leaders, including:

* Thomas Jefferson, who was a filtered candidate for US president, and is regarded as one of the best presidents because of the Louisiana purchase, but any other president would have acted the same in the same circumstances
* Abraham Lincoln, who was an unfiltered presidential candidate whose idiosyncratic characteristics caused him to make decisions which other presidents would not have made
* Woodrow Wilson, an unfiltered presidential candidate whose idiosyncratic characteristics prevented him from achieving US ratification of the Treaty of Versailles
* Neville Chamberlain, a filtered candidate for prime minister of Great Britain, who was unsuitable as a war-time leader
* Winston Churchill, and unfiltered prime ministerial candidate, whose idiosyncratic characteristics were instrumental in leading Great Britain to victory in the second world war

According to the author, filtered leadership candidates - those who have extensive experience and have gone through a careful selection process - tend to do a competent but not exceptional job. Unfiltered candidates - those who achieve a leadership position without extensive screening - are more likely to be either very bad or very good.
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