Why Boring Political Conventions Are Better

Boring political conventions — like the ones we're observing this week and last in the United States — are a good thing. Today's conventions are pre-scripted because there's a clear winner going in. That makes for bad television, but Americans should be grateful. When conventions are exciting, strange, even disastrous things can happen. Woodrow Wilson won his presidential nomination through clever backroom maneuvering and coming from behind, and while his presidency had significant triumphs, his racism set back civil rights and his inability to negotiate or compromise with his opponents prevented the United States from ratifying the Treaty of Versailles and doomed the League of Nations to failure.

We can all think of leaders, like Wilson, who individually made a huge difference — for better or worse. (Many of you pointed this out in the comments to my last blog post.)What explains them?

To answer that question, you really have to start by understanding how to measure leader impact. Here's one way to think about it: if the current leader had been replaced by the most likely alternative (if the runner-up had gotten the job), how different would the outcome have been? What would have happened? That gap between the leader you have and the leader you would have had is the measure of a leader's impact.

So where do these "extreme leaders" come from? What separates them from the rest of the pack? Let's look at the process that most organizations use to select their leaders. Think of this process as a filter, one that only allows candidates to pass through if they are close enough to some set of predetermined characteristics. At the end of this process — which can take years — every candidate who has been filtered is likely to have similar effects on the organization if he or she gets the top job. How different could they possibly be if they made it through this long evaluation process? A filter for leaders homogenizes the candidates, so a company that filters candidates for leadership based on the qualities it thinks will lead to success will raise their average quality even as it decreases their variance.

If the filter is good enough, the organization will be left with a handful of people who are all extremely good at their job, and all basically interchangeable. To find individual leaders who can have a huge difference, we need to identify leaders who gain power over an organization without filtering.

What does an unfiltered leader look like? Unfiltered leaders are ones whom the organization cannot have fully evaluated before he or she got the job. They might be an entrepreneur, like Steve Jobs, who didn't go through any organizational evaluation process because he founded the organization. They might be an outsider, like Lou Gerstner, who hadn't spent a day in the computer industry before he became the CEO of IBM. Jobs and Gerstner are successes, of course, but it can easily go the other way. Al Dunlap, the infamous CEO of Sunbeam, was an outsider too, but he destroyed his company.

What most organizations really want is a guarantee of competent leadership with few surprises. And their filtering and evaluation processes ensure that outcome. That's why we spend so much time evaluating and filtering leaders: Not everyone can do the job, and picking the wrong leader can be disastrous.

That's even truer in politics than it is in business. The worst thing a disastrous CEO can do is bankrupt a company (and that's terrible enough), but national leaders can have far greater impact (again, for better or worse). Abraham Lincoln had only had two years in Congress before he became President. He won the Republican nomination because he was believed to be less aggressively anti-slavery than William Henry Seward, the frontrunner. Once elected, though, he revealed himself to be far more aggressive in prosecuting the Civil War than Seward would have been in his place.

Choosing an unfiltered leader works when you get a Lincoln. But such a course is also remarkably risky, since, usually, you're not that lucky. Napoleon Bonaparte was given his first significant command in 1796 because he convinced France's Revolutionary government that he had no major political interests. Three years later he overthrew it and, at thirty, became the ruler of France. For all his military genius, however, the end result of his rule was 16 years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths, with the French monarchy restored upon his eventual defeat. Had France's government realized Napoleon's insatiable ambition, they would never have put him in a position to seize power. But the ferment of the Revolution meant that no filtering was possible, paving the way for one of the most important single individuals in history.

Back to contemporary U.S. politics: Dramatic conventions may make for great TV, but they also create the possibility for nominees who have not been filtered, and the real possibility of electing a president who could be a disaster. There are other ways to elect a disastrous president (and the American political system is almost uniquely prone to allowing unfiltered candidates to become president), but the risks of doing so are significant. There are just many more ways to fail than there are to succeed.

If choosing unfiltered leaders is so risky, are there any circumstances when doing so might be a good idea? And is there any way to maximize your odds of getting a Lincoln and not Napoleon? That's what I'll cover in my next post.

This entry was posted in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.