I Am a Recovering Leadership Atheist

Audio Transcript

I am a recovering leadership atheist. I really distrust leadership answers. I don’t like them. They’ve always struck me as unbelievably sloppy. I remember when I studied applied mathematics in college, and I remember when we did certain types of mathematics in numerical-methods courses.  

The whole key to numerical methods and making things come together in numerical methods is this thing called the plug figure. At some point, you’ve got to put a plug figure in and then balance your equations, then put another plug figure in, and you keep iterating in your numerical methods until you finally get everything to work. That’s part of how numerical methods works. The problem is that if at some point your plug figure is 90 percent of the equation, you probably haven’t solved anything yet.

Leadership is our giant plug figure for everything we don’t understand.

“Well, why was GE successful?”

“Well, it must have been leadership.”

Then, of course, we find out that GE wasn’t as successful as we thought it was. We’re going to say, “Well, actually, it was leadership.” The world’s more complex than that. 

So, at the beginning of the research project, I came to the team and I said, “We will not have a leadership answer.” This is not conducive to freedom of thought. The irreverent chimps, of course, decided that they would look at things a bit differently.  

One day I walked into the research-team meeting, and they’d all joined hands. Well, that’s kind of different.  

“Today is the day, Jim, we’ve decided to tell you that you are wrong.” 


“We believe from the data that leadership does matter.” 

And I responded, and I—well, actually, they kept pushing on it. They said, “You know, if you look at what the people did, people like Joe Cullman and Darwin Smith and David Maxwell, we don’t think these transformations would have happened without them.” 

I pushed back and I said, “Well, yes, that may be true. But you can’t tell me that the comparison people weren’t leaders. You can’t tell me that Lee Iacocca was not a leader. You can’t tell me that Henry Singleton was not a leader, or Ray MacDonald was not a leader, or Stanley Gault was not a leader, or Jack Eckerd was not a leader. They were leaders, too. So, the answer can’t be leadership.” 

And they said, “Well, we anticipated you’d do that to us, so we came prepared today, and we’ve decided to show you evidence from our reading of the material that the good-to-great leaders were cut from the same cloth, and the cloth was different from the comparisons.” And that’s what got my attention.

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