Breaking News

Tweet TWEET

The Indispensable, Unlikely Leadership of Abraham Lincoln

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Gautam Mukunda, Harvard Business School assistant professor and author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.


Download this podcast

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm talking today with Gautam Mukunda, from Harvard School. He's the author of indispensable, When Leaders Really Matter.

Gautam, thanks so much for joining us today.

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: Thank you, Sarah. It's a pleasure to be here.

SARAH GREEN: So your work and this book really focuses on what you call extreme leaders. Can you just start by telling us what is an extreme leader?

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: So an extreme leader is a different leader. Someone who, the fact that that individual was in that place at that time really had a huge impact on the outcome of events. So when I say extreme, what I really mean is compared to all the other people who plausibly could have had that job, this person is extremely different from most of the others, most of the other likely ones.

So there might have been other people who could have been there. But they didn't matter, because they never had a shot at getting the job. This is someone who was actually there, who was the president of the United States, or the prime minister of Great Britain, or the CEO company, who the number two candidate, the person who if he or she had dropped dead of a heart attack or resigned to spend time with their family, the person who would have replaced them, would have made very, very different choices. That's what extreme really means.

SARAH GREEN: And it doesn't have anything to do was say, being an extremist?

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: Not at all. In fact, the striking thing about extreme leaders, the thing that is I think the most surprising thing when you look at the leadership this way, is that they tend to be either very good or very bad, and sometimes both in the same career. So we used to think about leadership as saying that there are sort of bad leaders and good leaders and great leaders. And I think what thinking about leaders this way tells you, is that that's really a mistake. That that's the wrong way to think about leaders.

What you really have are normal leaders, leaders who are sort of part of the system and have worked their way up. And they're usually pretty good at their job. Because everybody's looked at them and they know them really well and they're saying, yeah, this is a person who can be a good president, or good prime minister, or a good CEO.

But then there's this other pool of people. They might come in from outside the system or something strange happens and they get the job. And they're very, very different from these normal leaders.

So what you should think of is normal leaders and abnormal leaders. And the abnormal leaders are split. Some of them will be great and some of them will be awful. But what they really are is different.

SARAH GREEN: So I think that's really interesting. But I'm wondering how much of that depends on whether they're leading in extreme times?

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: So, quite a lot. But the key here is to think about what other people in the exact same situation would have done. So let's think about Abraham Lincoln for example. Abraham Lincoln is usually considered the greatest of all American presidents.

And so Abraham Lincoln becomes president of United States. And he's the quintessential outsider presidential candidate. His only natural political office is two years in congress. You know, one term.

And he doesn't do very well with that term. He doesn't get reelected. He doesn't even run for reelection because he knows he's never going to win again.

And then when he goes into the Republican National Convention, and he's trying to run for president, but he's such an obscure Republican that-- people publish sort of campaign biographies of say the 10 leading candidates for the Republican nomination. And usually when they would that list of 10 together, he wouldn't be on it. So he comes completely from the outside, there's this set of amazing circumstances and really clever maneuvering, and he ends up president of the United States.

So then you got to think about who else could have been president of the United States? In the case of Abraham Lincoln, that's actually a really easy question to answer. We know exactly who would have been president of United States if it weren't for Abraham Lincoln. And it's William Henry Seward, who was Lincoln's secretary of state.

So what we say is OK, Lincoln did one set of things. What did Seward want him to do? What did Seward say he would have done? And we know that Seward had the same information available, because again, he was right there. He was Lincoln's secretary of state.

So the crisis that began the Civil War pivoted on Fort Sumter, a federal fort in Charleston Harbor, that was one of the last federally-held possessions in the seceded states. And so the question essentially was, should the North, should the federal government, use force to defend the fort if the South attacked it? Or should it give up peacefully and just evacuate its forces and let the South have the territory? So Lincoln wanted to fight.

And Seward, his position was that what we should actually do is evacuate the fort and evacuate other federal possessions in the South. And he said, the South will come back on its own. He says, if we just don't fight, what he called the secessionist fever will pass and six months from now, they'll say this was all a mistake and they'll come back into the Union. And he wants to do some other things to encourage them to come back in the Union, some things that in retrospect looked pretty crazy, like he wanted to start a war with Spain or France. And so that if we started a war with Spain or France, everybody will rally around the flag and we'll be fine.

Lincoln didn't think that was a good idea. And Lincoln and Seward sort of had this incredible struggle about who was going to control the federal government. Because even though Lincoln was the president, remember he wasn't this famous, dominant figure. He was the president at an era when presidents weren't that strong. So there was a real question as to who was going to make policy for the United States government. Would it be Seward or Lincoln? Lincoln won. Lincoln chose to fight.

And because Lincoln chose to fight, the North, which actually wasn't all that enthusiastic about the war-- in fact, only about a third of Northerners actually wanted to fight when the crisis began. But Lincoln chose to say that we aren't going to fire the first shot, but we're going to force the South to fire the first shot. When they did, it completely unified the North behind the war effort. And for the next two years, Lincoln was able to prosecute the war with a unified sort of North behind him.

So if Seward had been the of United States-- and Seward is the person who should have been present of the United States. He was vastly more qualified. He'd been a two-term senator. He'd been a two-term governor from New York, the most important state in the Union.

He had a national reputation as the most important Republican. He had an international reputation as one of the foremost opponents of slavery. Like if you were sort of a normal, sensible person, and you wanted to vote for a Republican in that election, you were going to vote William Henry Seward. Instead, Lincoln gets the election.

But the outcome is completely different. And my opinion, in fact it would've have been much worse. Lincoln was a genius. There wasn't a lot to show that at the time. But now we can see in retrospect that he clearly was, as people started to realize even then. And he understood the crisis much better than Seward did. And his choices I think led directly to Northern victory, four years later.

Without Lincoln, I suspect the North actually loses the Civil War. But the striking thing here is that's true, but the really impressive thing is how different his choices were. Seward, maybe he wants to fight a war. But he wants to fight a war with Europe.

Lincoln says no, that's a bad idea. If we're going to do this, we're going to win this war on our own. And so that's what I mean by extreme. There were dozens of other people that could have been president of the United States. They're all them, much more likely than Lincoln.

And in fact, strikingly the reason Lincoln got the nomination in the Republican National Convention was because he was considered to be the most moderate Republican, the least anti-slavery Republican. The one who would be more conciliatory towards the South, than Seward, who was thought to be too radical. But of course, they were completely wrong.

Lincoln was the guy who wanted to fight. Lincoln was the person who would go to the wall, who would go further than anyone else to keep the Union together. And so, the sense of Lincoln as an extreme leader is that he was again, extremely different from all of the other people who might have that job. And that difference had all the difference in policy.

So sure, if Abraham Lincoln had been elected president and there was no Civil War, he would still probably have been different from other people. He would've been less different. The impact would have been smaller. But the difference remains.

SARAH GREEN: I think that's a really fascinating example. And I think it really highlights just how important the leadership selection process is when you're choosing a leader.

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: So in fact my work is primarily about selection process. It's the question of how do we get these leaders? So we can assume that leaders matter. We sort of think about the world and we say oh, so this happened. And therefore, the person who was in charge when it happened is responsible. That's not necessarily true.

Take a look at Thomas Jefferson's presidency. So Thomas Jefferson, historians usually rank him as the fourth best American president. And the most important reason for that is the Louisiana Purchase.

The Louisiana Purchase happened while Jefferson was president. He doubles the size of the United States, at extraordinarily low cost, peacefully. You do that, you're a great president. This is a huge success. You should always applaud that.

The question is, does the Louisiana Purchase happen because of Jefferson? And what I would say is, no. If you actually look at the diplomatic history, not only did everyone around Jefferson also want to do the Louisiana Purchase, but he didn't suggest it. It wasn't his idea. It was entirely suggested by the French. If Jefferson had never become president of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase still happens. In fact, it probably happens more easily than it did with him.

So the way selection processes matter is Jefferson was a really, really thoroughly evaluated candidate. He had spent 20 years at the upper levels of the American political spectrum. Everybody knew exactly who they were getting.

They knew that he would do a really good job. Where he was going to take the country, was where they want to go. They knew he was smart. They knew he was capable. So he had been selected to do these things.

And when he was in the job, he get a good job. But that shouldn't surprise anybody. That's why they chose him,

The question would be, what happens when your selection process works in such a way that you get someone where you just don't know who they are? Sometimes that's going to happen. You bring an outsider. Somebody inherits the company. That's a selection process of a sort, except you don't get to evaluate that person to see if they're actually up to doing the job or if their vision for the company is where you want to take it,

So selection processes actually are the most important thing. That most of the time when a selection process works really, really well-- think about say, General Electric. General Electric spends 20, 30 years evaluating all its employees. They sort of do incredible levels of detail. They have this long, routinized, elaborate process to choose a new CEO. And at the end of the day, you can be confident about, one, that their CEO is probably very good at the job, because if they weren't, how did they get through that process?

But the second thing you can be confident of I would say, is it probably doesn't matter that much who the CEO actually is. They might be very, very gifted managers, but this is GE. GE employs hundreds of thousands of people. They have other very, very gifted managers.

The person who came in second in that contest, might not be as good. They might be different. But how different could they possibly be? Because if they were really, really different, they wouldn't have come in second.

So the selection process is a guarantee of some level of quality. But it's also guarantee that the individual may not be that important. So management can matter, even when managers don't.

But when the selection process isn't working like that, when you get an Abraham Lincoln for example, or a Woodrow Wilson-- when Woodrow Wilson became president of the United States, he had only been governor of New Jersey for 1 and 1/2 years. No one knew anything about him when he became president. In fact, one of the ways he got the Democratic nomination was he got support from African American voters, who thought that he would not be an old-school southern segregationist.

This was in fact completely wrong. Again, Woodrow Wilson was one of the most racist presidents that the United States has ever had. And so there was just nothing in his record as president of Princeton or governor of New Jersey where he had to deal with these issues. And so he was able to fake it and pretend that he wasn't something that he actually was.

Then he becomes president of the United States. And I think anyone who looks at Woodrow Wilson's career would say this was a unique individual. This was someone whose biases, whose ways of looking at the world were completely different from anyone else who might have been president.

And they mattered a whole lot. Sometimes all to the good. Woodrow Wilson basically created the Federal Reserve System. Sometimes disastrously, when it was his rigidity, and his inflexibility, and his unwillingness to compromise that caused the United States to not enter the League of Nations. So that selection process was one that allowed a single individual to matter a whole lot.

So depending upon the situation you're in, sometimes you're going to want a selection process the guarantees equality, in which case individuals won't matter a lot. And sometimes you're going to want to roll the dice and sometimes you're going to want us the sort of unique individual who is going to have a huge impact. But you've got to be careful, because huge impact doesn't mean positive.

SARAH GREEN: OK, so tell us what you mean by that?

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: We think of leadership and we think of leadership as a positive thing. But leadership can take you in a very, very bad direction.

So two CEOs I looked at for example were Al Dunlap and Jamie Dimon. And they're both really, really famous. Jamie Dimon has hit a bad patch recently. But is still the guy who led his bank more successfully than almost anyone else through the financial crisis.

And he was hired as the CEO of Bank One, which merged to create JP Morgan Chase. And he was hired as an outsider. He had been fired from Citigroup, the company he helped create, for a variety of reasons, culminating with, and I find this almost impossible to believe when I say it, but culminating with an almost fistfight at a black-tie event, hosted for Citigroup senior executives.

This is a story so bizarre, it doesn't seem possible. But that seems to be what actually happened. He becomes CEO of Bank One when he gets hired in, by a board of directors that wasn't looking for a specific business plan. They weren't looking for experience in retail banking. They were looking for a leader who had charisma, who could turn the company around. And they found Dimon, who certainly has charisma in spades.

And then he's sort of an enormous success because he's just much more conservative in running JP Morgan Chase than anyone else was. Then he actually ordered his risk managers to run their simulations as if United States had 10% unemployment, which of course is what eventually ended up having. But nobody else did that and why did he do that? That's sort of an interesting question. So he's an outsider, who does really, really well.

But the flip side is Al Dunlap, the sort of legendary, in a very bad way, CEO of Sunbeam, who took a company that had been relatively successful and relatively profitable, and took it into bankruptcy in about two years. So Dunlap had gone from business to business, from company to company, with an image as a turnaround artist, someone who would make enormous cost cuts, that would juice up short-term profits and then leave for the next company.

Before Sunbeam, he ran Scott Paper, where he essentially tripled its value in a handful of years and sold it Kimberly Clark and maybe humongous fortune off of this. Now, of course, Kimberly Clark then had to undo all the changes he had made. But he had left by then. So they made a horrible decision, but he had profited.

So he gets hired by the board of directors of Sunbeam. That board of directors, one of its members reads a magazine article about him, on an airplane flight or something like that. Reads a magazine article, says wow, this guy seems really impressive.

Flies down to Florida, has lunch with him for a couple of hours. Brings him back up. He gets hired with essentially carte blanche, complete authority to do anything he wants inside the company.

Most of the members of the board didn't even know he was in contention for the CEO position when he was hired. So there's no evaluation here all. There's no filtration.

These guys are looking at these other companies saying well, he did a great job there, he must be good for us. But he didn't do a great job there. He just look like he did a great job there, which is very, very different thing.

And in fact, what we found out now is that it looks like a lot of his great job in his previous jobs, was probably accounting fraud. Which is exactly what happened at Sunbeam, as the company actually blew up.

So this is the funny thing about these selection processes, is it's easy for us to tell ourselves that we know a lot about someone. You think that you know a lot about someone because you read about them in the newspaper or their stock price went up or any number of different things. You see them in the media all the time.

But the way you really get to know someone isn't through the press. It's not though how they do in a presidential debate. It's by sitting across the table with them. You've got to be in a smoke-filled room with this man or woman, not for an hour, but for years.

You want to see how does this person handle stress? How do they make decisions? What's their character really like?

That person is not going to trust you. They're not going to open up and give you true knowledge of who they really are in an hour, or even a day, or a month. It takes time.

So selection systems, you need to have this long, what I call filtration. This long period of evaluation where people can get up close and personal and where they really get to know someone. When you do that, you can be sure-- or not completely sure, but as sure as you're ever going to get that you know who this person is.

If you bring him in from outside, no matter how much you think you know about the person, you never had that up and close and personal. You never felt the force of their personality. And that's really what you know.

SARAH GREEN: So it sounds like in some circumstances, a long filtration or selection process is really helpful and it's actually what you want. Because you want to take the leaders that are going to be the most likely to be the most successful, most of the time, under normal circumstances. But in other situations, maybe you don't want that long filtration process because you actually want a leader who's going to be a wild card.

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: I think that's exactly right. The problem is that there are many more ways to fail than there are succeed. There are always many, many more possible wrong answers than right answers. So if that's true, then you want to make sure you don't get someone who consistently gets the wrong answers. That's what a long filtration process guarantees you.

But we also know that the very, very best leaders are the ones who do things that everyone else at the time says that's a crazy idea, that will never work, and they're right. Of course, the worst leaders are the ones who say that's a crazy idea, that'll never work, and they're wrong. But if you need that great leader, that's when you get an unfiltered one.

So the question is when do you? And I think there are lots of answers to that question. But the most important one is, how desperate are you? Not, are you in a little bit of trouble? Because we know just how much damage a bad leader can do. An Al Dunlap can take your relatively successful company and destroy it in a year. That's from great to nothing.

But if you're desperate, if you're on the verge of bankruptcy, if your industry is being completely changed, then it's not to get worse. A bad leader is not going to make you more bankrupt. There's only one outcome there. Then you may want to roll the dice. Then it's time to bring in an outsider.

And there are few other circumstances too. But especially if you're in a country or a big, established company, that's when you want to do it. When it's willing to take the risk, that you'll get something completely can't do the job, because that's the only way you'll get the person who is the only person who can do the job.

SARAH GREEN: One of my favorite stories in the book I think really ties all of this together. And that's the story of Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. And it's interesting, because it's a story we think we all know. But you managed to retell it in this really fascinating way. So go ahead and tell us that story?

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: So Hitler comes to power begins his aggression in Europe, Neville Chamberlain is the prime minister of Great Britain. And in our historical memory, the way especially Americans think about the lead up to the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain is this poor duke who got taken advantage of by Hitler.

And Churchill is the brave voice in the wilderness, who is spending forever warning against Hitler. And that's why he's in exile because he was saying Hitler is awful and nobody wanted to hear that and so they tossed him out. And basically, a lot of that story is completely wrong.

So on the Chamberlain side, Chamberlain had been sort of minister of health and welfare. He'd been chancellor of the exchequer, the British version of the secretary of the treasury. He had been the dominant figure in the British cabinet for years and years and years, leading up to his prime ministership.

Everyone in Britain knew that Neville Chamberlain was going to be the next conservative prime minister of Great Britain. There was no doubt. He had proven in their mind that he could do the job.

Now he'd never done foreign policy, but he's done almost everything else. So when he becomes prime minister, he has complete grasp over the conservative party because he was but not just the filtered candidate, but the overwhelming filtered candidate. The person everybody had spent those years in the smoke-filled rooms with, and knew they could job.

Now Churchill, Churchill was kind of the opposite. Churchill wasn't ignored because of his warnings against Hitler. That's actually the exact opposite of the true story. The true story is warnings against Hitler were ignored, because Churchill was making them. Because everyone in British politics had decided that Winston Churchill was brilliant, that he was incredibly talented, he was incredibly hard working, that he could give incredible speeches, and he was completely crazy, that he had awful judgment.

They said that if you looked over his career, he held more ministerial offices, more positions in the government than any other person in all of British history. But the problem is he would have these jobs and some awful catastrophe what happen. He is the guy who's responsible for the Gallipoli offensive in the first world war that's a disaster. And you can say, it's not his fault, there were sort of extenuating circumstances, all that is true. But one of the day, he was responsible.

He was the chancellor of the exchequer when the Great Depression happens. Most strikingly, when he was sort of a senior member the conservative party, the prime minister who preceded Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, wanted to give what's called home rule to India. Essentially grant India, not independence, but a movement towards that, more discretion.

Churchill had spent a few years in India when he was a young man, but he didn't understand it. He had an incredibly hair trigger reaction. Anything he reacted to, was a threat to the British empire. And in his own words, he said, I hate Indians. I think they're a beastly people in a beastly country.

So even by the standards of Victorian England, he was not what we would call an enlightened person. And you got to think about just how bad you have to be that in 19th and early 20th century Britain, people like wow, there's something wrong with this guy.

And so he fought an incredibly vicious and long-lasting and bitter war against his own party to stop this from happening, in which he was repeatedly humiliated, defeated, his ignorance exposed over and over again. By the end of it, people said, this guy's crazy. They're not going to listen to him.

And then just when he starts to recover his political position, you have the abdication crisis, where sort of the almost king came to Britain has this affair with Wallis Warfield Simpson. This was of course portrayed in the King's Speech, the movie. Now, the striking thing about the King's Speech of course is they have Churchill's during that crisis, the exact opposite of what it actually was.

Churchill wasn't the hero. Churchill was the guy who was trying to defend this king of England, who was having the affair. And who we now know was a Nazi sympathizer. Sort of the worst possible person to be king of Britain during the upcoming crisis, as Churchill himself finally admitted many years later. But his stance was so sort of romantic, and impractical, and unpopular, that whatever remaining credibility he had after the Indian debacle was just destroyed.

So then Hitler began. Chamberlain is sort of trying to manage this crisis. And you got to remember that there hasn't been anyone like Hitler in European politics since at the most recent, Napoleon in 1815. This idea of someone who's real goal was to conquer the world, nobody in Europe had any history of dealing with people like that.

So they started off never believing it. This guy can't be serious. Nobody actually says stuff like this.

And so Chamberlain says well, we just give him what you wants-- like a little bit, he'll be appeased. That was the idea of appeasement. We give him a little of what we want and he'll be OK.

There are basically four crises that lead up to the British declaration of war on Germany, following the German invasion of Poland. In the first two, Chamberlain wants to give Hitler everything he wants and Chamberlain wins and the British government gives away the store. And Hitler keeps going.

Now, the striking thing is that in the third and the fourth crises, Hitler was making demands and Chamberlain still wanted to concede everything. And the other members of the British government-- Chamberlain's foreign minister was Lord Halifax-- basically said no, we can't do this anymore. They broke with Chamberlain.

And if you want sort of one way in which a leader can't matter, at the end of the day Chamberlain said OK, I'll do what you want, not what I want, went back to Hitler and renegotiated and actually got the terms that the rest of the British government was demanding. And then of course, this didn't stop Hitler either. And eventually, Hitler invaded Poland. This was a bridge too far and they declared war.

But after all of this, Chamberlain remained in control the British government. So Chamberlain doesn't matter very much, but he still in charge. Churchill doesn't matter at all, because no one is listening to him. And then finally he's proven correct.

And Hitler continues on with his invasion. He invades Norway. He conquers Norway.

This is sort of a series of debacles, just one reverse after another. And you've got to imagine what it's like to be the prime minister of Great Britain at this time. It's Britain and France standing alone against Germany, which has conquered Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway.

Italy is allied to Germany. So is Japan. And we forget this, so is the Soviet Union. So Britain and France standing alone.

And then finally, one defeat too many. Chamberlain starts to lose control of the British government. And it becomes clear that Chamberlain can't stay as prime minister. At this point, Churchill has been brought into the government. He's first lord of the admiralty, sort of their equivalent of the secretary of navy.

And so the question would become, so who's going to replace Chamberlain? And then of course, Hitler invades France. The French army collapses.

And again, think about what this is like? Now, Britain doesn't even have France. Britain is alone. Who is going to lead Britain at this moment, when everyone in the world seemed against them and even the United States just didn't want to get involved?

So the question becomes, who can replace Chamberlain? So the major actors in the British government at this time are the king, Chamberlain himself, the senior members of the conservative party, the senior members of the labor and liberal parties. Every one of those major figures in the British political system agreed on who the next prime minister should be. They were all sure. The problem is it wasn't Churchill. It was Halifax.

Halifax had been the foreign minister. He had been a hero in the first world war. He had negotiated successfully with Gandhi in India.

He had been the guy who had told Chamberlain no, you're going too far. You can't give away the store. You got to at least push back a little bit.

Everybody wanted Halifax to be prime minister, because again they just didn't trust Churchill's judgment. Because they had 40 years of his career where he makes mistake after mistake. If you had been one of these people and you had see Churchill's record, you wouldn't have trusted his judgment either. He'd been right about Hitler. But as they all say a stopped clock is right twice a day and that's how they thought about Churchill.

So the thing is, Halifax didn't want the job. And that's what he said. He said, I don't think I can be a war time prime minister. I don't want the job.

And we really don't know why he said this. Maybe he genuinely didn't want a job. Maybe he thought it was impossible and that if they'd give it to somebody else, that person would fall apart. And then he would sort of have no rivals and he could really be sort of unquestionably in charge.

But OK, Halifax didn't want the job. And with Halifax saying that he didn't want the job, the only person left was Churchill. So Churchill doesn't become prime minister because they think he's the best choice. He becomes prime minister because he's the only person left. So even though they knew that his record was not that good, that record basically had no role in the decision to make him prime minister. The two got separated.

So then he becomes prime minister. And he's got to make the call, right, France is surrendering. So he's got to decide, is Britain going to fight or is it going to negotiate?

And again, think about the situation the British are in. Germany rules all of Europe. Italy is on its side. Japan is on its side. The Soviet Union is on its side. And the United States is, in response to repeated requests, saying we do not want to get involved.

And you are Britain, all by yourself. Your army, you think is about to be destroyed in France. What do you do? What would any sensible person do?

The British don't know about just how evil Hitler really is. They think he's like Napoleon. They don't know yet just how bad it really is.

So Churchill, being Churchill, wants to fight. And so he and Halifax, Halifax is the guy who might have been prime minister, basically get into this huge series of arguments in cabinet meetings as to what Britain is going to do. Are they going to fight? Are they going to just say no negotiation with Hitler, we fight to last man?

Or are they going to do what Halifax wanted to do? He said that look, we can't win. He said we have no way of winning. There's no scenario where this war ends well for us. Let's salvage what we can. Let's open negotiations.

And over four or five days of what have been the most dramatic moments in anybody's history, Churchill finally-- he's losing most of the time, because most of the cabinet is on Halifax's side. And at the last minute, he gives sort of one of his classic stem-winding orations to the other members of the cabinet, sort of the people who are outside in the big cabinet, not the small group of people who are making the decision. And they rally behind them and they say, we will fight to the last man, if that's what it takes.

And then he comes back to cabinet with that. And Halifax says OK, if everybody's is behind you on this, we'll go. And they fight. And of course, we know the outcome there, Churchill is the hero of the story.

And he is the hero of the story. He was right. Without Churchill, Britain probably negotiates, finds a separate peace. And Hitler rules Europe for who knows how long.

But the striking thing here is this is a guy, he was wrong all those earlier times in his career. After this moment, I would say that he actually wasn't all that successful either. So it was all the characteristics that led him to be someone who the system had said, we don't want any part of this guy. He's too adamant. He doesn't negotiate. Any time anything looks like a threat to the British empire, he goes crazy.

Well, that's exactly what you need when you're Hitler. It's just, most situations aren't fighting Hitler. And so for the rest of his career, he wasn't the right guy. But at that moment, he was.

So this is again, this classic extreme leader. If you look at all the other people who might have had this job, they don't make the same decisions. And all those other people were smart and capable and sort of patriotic and they wanted the best for Britain. They just would have wrong. And so at this moment in time, it was this one person who was the right person. But at any other moment, probably not.

SARAH GREEN: Well Gautam, this has just been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

GAUTAM MUKUNDA: Thank you very much, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: That was Harvard Business School's professor Gautam Mukunda. His new book is called Indispensable, When Leaders Really Matter. For more, visit hbr.org.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.