Gautam Mukunda: Leadership

Editor’s Note: Gautam Mukunda is an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard 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.  His first book, “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” was published in September 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Gautam Mukunda recently to gain his ideas and insights about Leadership which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Gautam, thank you so much for giving me time in the midst of your busy schedule. I believe we will be able to find some interesting facts about leadership today. You studied at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  At the same time, you have been working with giant companies as well as advising nonprofit organizations. As an assistant professor, you have been teaching ‘Leadership’ at Harvard Business School. Recently you’ve published your book ‘Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter’. At the very beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about how do you see ‘leaders’?

Gautam: You’re welcome. And I am happy to be here. So when I study leader, I study basically anyone with the possession of power in an organization. I would say about the people particularly at the top of the organization. By having their office and by being at the top of the organization, they are the leaders. So when I look at in my book and in my other research  about the question ‘When does it really matter who the person at the top of the organization is’ or ‘What is the circumstances when it’s important that it was this person and not one of the other people who might possibly have the job’.

Niaz: That’s really impressive. So how do you define leadership?

Gautam: I would say, in an essence, leadership is what leaders do. It could be anything. For my work, in some sense it doesn’t matter. So leadership is just anything leaders do as part of their job descriptions. More broadly in other people research, there is a distinction between leadership and management. Management is kind of the process of the organization and taking care of the certain things and leadership is more of the emotional side of the organization like inspiration, culture and that kind of things.

Niaz: I have read your book ‘Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter’. But those who are not familiar with your book, can you please tell us briefly about your book?

Gautam: Sure. So my book proposes an explanation as to when the individual leaders really make a big difference in the behavior or performance of an organization. The book is essentially a way to answer this question ‘When an individual leader matters’ or more broadly to answer sort of traditional debating question ‘Individual leaders make history or it really about larger social forces or individual leaders don’t matter’.

Niaz: What are your new findings in your book?

Gautam: So my book says, in most of the time, leadership is all about larger social forces. Most of the time individual leaders don’t matters.  But sometimes under very clearly identifiable circumstances, individual leaders can matter a great deal.

Niaz: What is most significant: Nurturing Leadership for Years or  Hiring Rock Stars.

Gautam: So in general it is almost always better to nurture leadership for long term within the organization. The people who work within the organization are the people are well known to you. You understand them and know their performance. Organization that are successful for long periods of time, are successful in part because they consistently able to develop and nurture leadership within the organization. They don’t need outsider. The companies that are successful for long time always tend to bring insider. Even though they don’t get Steve Jobs but they never just get a complete failure.

Niaz: Suppose you have been in business for 20 years, how will you hire a CEO for your billion dollars company?

Gautam: So the first question I would want to ask is whether I want someone from inside of the company or from outside of the company. Because it’s very different such of things. If you want someone from inside of the company there is relatively low risk choice because s/he is someone you know very well. So if your company is doing well and it’s in pretty good shape, you probably want someone from inside of the company. But if your company struggling or there is a major change in the market or something happening that cause you to think about trouble and you don’t have any one inside of the company with right approach then you have to start looking outside of the company. And when you are doing that then there are a variety of things you have to think that I have described in my book. May be the most important thing is that you have to realize that in general there is little chance of getting someone who is good at all of the skills sets needed to lead the organization. People have different skills sets at the same time organizations need different skills sets. So, Instead of looking for the best leader, what you really need to look for the right leaders.

Niaz: What sort of advices do you have for youth in becoming successful leaders?

Gautam: I would say that the most consistently successful leaders are people who do have many qualities. May be the one hardest and you need to work deliberately to cultivate is they are intellectually open. They draw on resources, concepts and ideas from a wide variety of areas. And they are not only open to other sorts of ideas but also the possibilities  they might be wrong, and they think very seriously and very constructively about how to recognize when they are wrong and how to learn from their mistakes and what to do about it. If I were giving sort of advice to people who are trying to develop leadership skills and to become a leader I would say read broadly, think broadly, engage in a wide variety of activity and do it with a learning orientation.Do it as someone who is consciously thinking about what am I am learning here that tells me that these are the things I knew I believed, isn’t true.

Niaz: Finally, are leaders made by history, or do they make it?

Gautam: Yah!That’s of course the topic of my book. And the answer is most of the time leaders are made by history. But sometimes, when a leader gets power, who hasn’t been thoroughly evaluated by the system, before they get power, is a little bit of unknown or a little bit of a surprise that person has the potential to do things radically different that no one else would do. And those people can really make history.

Niaz: Thank you so much for your time. And all the best wishes for your all upcoming projects.

Gautam: You are welcome. Good luck to you Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

2. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

3. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

4. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

5. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

6. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

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