Imagine reading an applicant’s cover letter for a senior-level position (maybe executive director, CEO, bishop or senior pastor) that begins this way: “I am an unlikely candidate for this position. I do not have years of experience with a predictable professional background or a conventional skill set for this job. I ask, though, that you see what I could bring to the job -- possibilities beyond predictability, capacities beyond conventions.”
What would you do with this letter? With this candidate? Would her candor annoy, disarm, inspire or intrigue you? Would you set her aside? Would you take a chance -- maybe offer an interview to see whether she might be right for the work despite the gaps in her background?
Before you decide what to do with this hypothetical candidate, consider the research of Gautam Mukunda of Harvard Business School in his book “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”
By Mukunda’s reckoning, 19 of the first 43 presidents of the United States could have submitted a version of this cover letter to the American people in their pursuit of the White House. These 19 ascended to the nation’s highest office having spent fewer than eight years in predictable pre-presidential offices (governor, senator, cabinet secretary, military officer), and they had not developed what we think of as conventional skill sets necessary for navigating the sociopolitical structures that define not only Washington, D.C., but the entire country. They were, as Mukunda names them, “unfiltered” presidents; they were not evaluated, qualified or trained for the office.
(For the curious, Mukunda counts Grover Cleveland, who served as the 22nd and 24th president, only once, and he excludes William Henry Harrison and James Garfield because of their brief tenures in office.)
That leaves 21 presidents with more conventional backgrounds. Prior to their election to the White House, each of these 21 enjoyed eight or more years in predictable offices and learned to navigate complicated political systems in generally palatable ways. Even if they were disliked personally, no one was surprised when they assumed the presidency. Mukunda classifies these presidents as “filtered” -- evaluated, qualified and formed for the office.
What makes Mukunda’s research intriguing is the relationship he sees between the presidents’ backgrounds and their impact, assessed by consolidating historians’ rankings.
Mukunda finds that the “filtered” presidents tend to fall in the middle of the rankings.
They led sustainable innovations within systems, while largely preserving the systems themselves. They seldom addressed deep systemic problems in their tenures; after all, they were formed to see the system’s problems as normal. Included in this roster are James Monroe, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Unfiltered presidents, on the other hand, tend to fall at either extreme of historians’ rankings (the greatest or the worst).
Because of their backgrounds, they were less invested in systems and institutions as they inherited them, so they were willing to instigate significant systemic change. They upended “the system” through their lack of awareness or lack of care for how the system actually worked. Even within government, they were innovators and entrepreneurs. But Mukunda is clear that while they were transformative leaders, being “unfiltered” did not guarantee that they would lead positive transformation. For every Lincoln or Washington (who count among the greatest) there was also a Grant or a Harding (who count among the worst).
For any who might be worried that Mukunda’s research is too narrowly limited by the presidency and its incumbents, he has applied the same categories to the British parliamentary system as well as leaders in other industries. He observes the same patterns: filtered leaders provide important, institution-sustaining leadership, but unfiltered leaders, unpredictable and unconventional as they are, are the innovators who change systems and have the deepest impact.
Within organizations today, there is much conversation about the kinds of leaders that we desire and need for the future. In these discussions, words like courageous, impactful, innovative and transformative appear regularly. What is described as needed are leaders who are dissatisfied with the status quo and its systems, who want to change them and perfect them. The needs we describe are more often addressed by unfiltered leaders.
Yet a challenge for most organizations and institutions is that the processes we have in place for filling leadership roles still privilege the filtered. Systems reward those who have been formed in them, who understand them intuitively and can bear their many demands. We have fewer ways of identifying and empowering the many promising unfiltered leaders among us. Even when we do identify them, many organizations have an innate low risk tolerance, and we put limits on their leadership -- and their potential.
So we return to our hypothetical candidate.
What would you do? You may have an unfiltered leader who is ready to serve and transform. You may have an unfiltered leader who is ready to demolish and remake.
Either way, it may be worth a phone call.
This article was originally written for and published on Faith & Leadership.