Gautam Mukunda

Book Review – Indispensable: Gautam Mukunda

In this “indispensable” guide to leadership, Gautam Mukunda attempted to answer a question scholars have debated for centuries. He set out to determine whether great times created great leaders or if extraordinary eras were the product of outstanding leadership. He also chose to address the question as to whether or not leaders really matter at all. An original approach to the analysis of leadership selection resulted.


The title derived from the infamous quotation attributed variously to Elbert Hubbard, Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Gaulle that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Muknuna presented a unique thesis that he called “Leadership Filtration Theory”, or LFT for short. In essence, he broke down leaders into two types: Filtered Modal and Unfiltered Extremes. He defined the former as the ones who passed through an extensive vetting process to make it to the top. The later he categorized as those who managed to skip a thorough period of analysis, or “filtration”, on their way to the primary job. (Curiously, he classified five of the six best and five of the six worst American Presidents as “Unfiltered Extremes”. [Page 28]) As one would expect from an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavioral Unit at the Harvard Business School, the author delivered a copious study of both types to buttress his arguments.


As a student of business, history and leadership this book presented a huge appeal to me and didn’t disappoint. I thought Mukunda’s selection of examples from fields diverse as politics, business, the military and medicine made his overall concept more rounded.


While the first part of Indispensable dealt heavily with theory, the second section provided detailed case studies of various leaders. Mukunda showed them in situations that required serious decision making. The author sedulously analyzed how they made their choices and then tied them to his thesis regarding Leadership Filtration Theory. I liked the leaders the author selected. The stories about unique personalities such as Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln and Neville Chamberlain in crisis situations enlivened the book. While charts and statistical analyses appeared in the text, the author relied more on the vignettes to advance his argument. I thought that a better choice than simply using volumes of raw data. It made the book much more accessible and, dare I write this about a work published by the Harvard Business Review Press, entertaining.


I took a lot away from Indispensable, some ideas of which I found counterintuitive. The author pointed out how most leaders aren’t charismatic (Page 13), although for those who are Unfiltered Extremes it serves as an intensifier. (Page 14) As I interpret this, while the majority of Filtered Modal leaders Mukunda studied didn’t possess charisma, all of the Unfiltered Extremes did. This concept intrigued me. I figured all leaders had some degree of charisma.


The author provided another fascinating revelation in stating that Unfiltered Extreme Leaders often battled some form of mental illness. (Page 14) Primarily these included narcissism and paranoia. (Page 15) He acknowledged that depression also plagued some of them creating a phenomenon called “depressive realism”. (Page 18) Ironically in the right situation these traits could serve beneficial purposes. For instance, a depressed person would be more risk averse and able to understand a situation in way someone more optimistic wouldn’t. An individual suffering from paranoia would see threats not as obvious to others.


This revelation about many leaders having suffered from mental illness troubled me. It may cause me sleepless nights well into the foreseeable future. As the author pointed out later in the book:

We know, however, that power changes people, and that it does so in predictable ways. Groups usually give power to those who display empathy and social skills. Once people have power, though, they act more impulsively and less empathetically. Power makes those who hold it more like sociopaths and more willing to dehumanize those who lack it. (Page 231)


I did catch two factual mistakes in the book. One page 165 the author wrote that Winston Churchill “held (his Parliamentary Constituency) Epping for the rest of his life.” Actually Churchill left Parliament several months before his death. He chose not to stand for election in October of 1964. He passed away in January of 1965.


In the section on Woodrow Wilson the author wrote:

…(he) abandoned the law to enter graduate school in political science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. There he wrote his first book Congressional Government, garnering rave reviews despite the fact he never even made the short trip to Washington to observe Congress. He decided against pursuing a doctorate and went to Bryn Mawr to teach. (Page 100)

In fact, Wilson did receive a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins. The book that became Congressional Government started out as his doctoral thesis.


I disagreed with the author’s characterization of Neville Chamberlain. Muknunda wrote that a Filtered Modal such as Chamberlain would’ve performed well in ordinary circumstances. When faced with a situation that required extraordinary talent, he failed. (Page 154) That analysis seemed a bit glib to me. While I believe that Chamberlain’s quest to serve as the world’s peacemaker at best naïve and at worst arrogant, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame him for all the catastrophic mistakes that lead to war. 1920s and 1930s diplomacy was exclusively geared towards avoiding another World War I. (The author even noted the Kellogg-Briand Pact.) In retrospect, this led to an even greater much larger conflict. Chamberlain’s views at the time were well in-step with mainstream thinking.


In addition, as the author admitted, Britain wasn’t in a military position to do anything to stop the Third Reich’s territorial designs in the late 1930s. The UK did begin a military build-up under, not Churchill, but Chamberlain. The author even acknowledged that the next most likely Prime Minister at the time would’ve pursued the same policies. If Chamberlain had seen the true nature of Hitler’s designs and tried to oppose them, I think he would’ve ended up out in the wilderness with Churchill.


In a nut-shell, does leadership matter? The answer: it depends. The author concluded the book with the trenchant observation that “choosing a leader is about matching, not ranking.” (Page 231) In other words, management or the electorate needs to properly assess the situation before selecting the appropriate man or woman to lead it. The stakes have never been higher. As Mukunda wrote,


The escape from the tragedy—the potential triumph of leadership—lies in the discovery or creation of leaders who can resolve the dilemma, who can be both confident and humble as the situation requires. Holding anyone to such a standard is, by any measure, unfair. In today’s world, however, when leaders must make decisions of unimaginable complexity, whose consequences can be measured in trillions of dollars or millions of lives, holding them to any lesser standard is unthinkable. (Page 239)