Why Most Leaders Are Like Oatmeal (Except Entrepreneurs)

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There was one huge surprise from my fourteen years researching leaders at Harvard Business School and MIT — they usually don’t matter that much. It’s not that leaders are unimportant. It’s that that most leaders are so constrained that they’re pretty much interchangeable. They’re like oatmeal. Breakfast is important, but one bowl of oatmeal is pretty much indistinguishable from other bowls of oatmeal.

For a lot of leaders, this makes sense. There are a few exceptions. In my first book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, I explain the situations and circumstances where individual leaders can matter a great deal. One of the most important is entrepreneurship. This might seem like a good thing – but having an impact is a double-edged sword.

There are three main reasons researchers believe most leaders don’t matter. Let’s start with the first two, both of which are familiar:

1) Companies have competitors that limit their freedom of action. If you run a company, you can’t set prices freely — your competitors will undercut you if you raise them too much

2) Companies have internal politics and other factors that limit leaders’ freedom of action.

These combine to limit what the management thinker Donald Hambrick termed “managerial discretion.”

And while we can all think of circumstances where there’s plenty of discretion left, there’s a third, hidden force, that minimizes leader impact. That third force is leader selection. Most organizations – particularly large ones – don’t choose their leader blindly. They have a process that evaluates candidates for leadership closely and chooses one based on some set of characteristics that are meant to predict what he or she will do once they get the job. In other words, organizations (like people!) have a type, and will reject people who do not fit.

This makes individual leaders matter a lot less than we might think. Because if one was replaced by another, the new leader would still be the organization’s type. Like replacing one brand of oatmeal with another. Because of this, it’s the process for selecting leaders that matters. As the great British satirist Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? … Shoot one, and there’ll be another one along in a minute…History always has a great weight of inertia.

Almost always.”


Leaders who matter either succeed brilliantly or fail catastrophically. Sometimes both.


Almost always because sometimes individual leaders can make a huge difference. The most common example? Entrepreneurs. They weren’t selected by a process. They lead their company because they created their company. There’s nothing homogenizing them. They can be as different as you can imagine, and act in unique ways, within the bounds allowed by internal and external forces. And those bounds often get considerably wider in a crisis, as they tend to collapse power into the hands of the person at the top of the organization, vastly increasing his or her discretion.

Seen in this way, it’s not a surprise that today’s most iconic businesspeople—like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Elon Musk—are all entrepreneurs. They aren’t iconic just because they’re successful. Bob Iger, the former CEO of Disney, was immensely successful, and how many of us could recognize him? They’re iconic because they are unique (I wrote these sentences while watching Musk’s SpaceX become the first private company ever to put astronauts into orbit, so it’s worth emphasizing that it’s possible that no entrepreneur has ever been as unique as Musk).

In short, entrepreneurs are leaders who matter, both when they form their company, and even once it grows. They often retain control over it, and because, as Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” (or woman).

Mattering, however, is a dangerous thing. How do you matter as a leader? By taking actions and making choices that no one else in the same situation would. Such choices are inevitably high variance in outcome. Leaders who matter either succeed brilliantly or fail catastrophically. Sometimes both.

Often, a single leader can do both. To take Musk again – in all of human history, only four entities have ever launched a human into orbit. The Soviet Union/Russia. The United States. China. And Musk’s SpaceX. That is an achievement so astonishing it boggles the mind. At the same time, no conventional leader would ever tweet (falsely) that he had secured funding to take his company private and base the price off a marijuana joke. Both are examples of an individual leader having a unique impact, for better or worse (not equally!).

So do you want to be a leader who matters? Your best bet is to be an entrepreneur. But be careful. You can’t matter without risk. So you’ll want to make sure that the way you end up mattering will be one you want to be remembered for.





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