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Accessing their services just for the book summaries is well worth the cost. Below is a sample from the April edition of Leader’s Edge Book Summary of Gautam Mukunda’s book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. Each book summary includes the content of the book by category of:

  • Best chapter
  • Best quotes
  • Best illustration
  • Best idea
  • Best take away
  • Recommendation



Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter

Author: Gautam Mukunda

Published by Harvard Business Review Press, 2012, Hardcover 320 pages. (ISBN-10: 1422186709)

Available in Kindle format. (ASIN: B008Z1Q7N0)


Leadership matters. But how important are individual leaders? That’s the question Gautam Mukunda raises in this fascinating book. Indispensable is about how and when leaders really make a difference. Mukunda introduces the idea of Leadership Filtration Process (LFP), the forces at work to filter candidates for a given leadership opportunity. He suggests leadership impact should be evaluated on a distribution curve and thought of as the marginal difference between what actually happened and what would have happened if the most likely alternative leader had been selected. A tight LFP tends to weed out candidates that deviate from the norms and result in a choice between a homogenous group.

“Sometimes, however, a leader from the tails of the distribution can win due to some rare combination of events…These extremes are likely to be high-impact leaders—for better or worse.” Page 6

 Best chapter

Chapters: 1–Hunting the High-Impact Leader and 9–The Tragedy and Potential Triumph of Leadership

Note: We normally highlight the single best chapter of a book but this title introduces fresh content you will not find in other sources and warranted two “best” chapters.

In chapter 1, Hunting the High-Impact Leader, the idea of a Leadership Filtration Process (LFP) is introduced and explained. Social scientists have posited that while leadership is important, individual leaders are not because of three factors: 1) external environment, which forces whoever is in power to respond and leaves little room for control, 2) internal organizational dynamics, which force leaders to respond to bureaucracy and influence from constituents, and 3) leadership selection systems, which homogenizes the pool of potential leaders, making it unlikely if not impossible for those who might have acted differently from coming to power in the first place.

LFP has two components, evaluation and decision. To be Filtered, a candidate must first be evaluated so that LFP can discern what he or she is really like. Then the results of that evaluation must be used to decide if he or she will become the leader. Evaluation is necessary but not sufficient to make a candidate a Filtered leader. For a leader to be Filtered the evaluation must be connected with the decision, which may not be the case in a monarchy or following the death of a sitting president where the transition of power is established independent of the evaluation.

Emergencies may de-link evaluation and decision, allowing candidates who have flunked evaluation to gain power anyway because crisis suspends normal decision-making or eliminates all the other available candidates. (Page 13) Unfiltered leaders are referred to as Extremes. Filtered leaders are described as Modal (near the mode of the distribution curve). If there’s a watchword for Extremes, it’s innovation. Most innovations fail. Extreme leaders are important because they make choices most leaders would not make. Those who make such choices and are right are remembered as geniuses. Those who fail are often not remembered at all. Page 16

In chapter 9, The Tragedy and Potential Triumph of Leadership, the author suggests six guidelines from Leadership Filtration Theory to inform leadership selection, advice on how selectors can use these guidelines and finally, suggestions for leaders regarding how their status as Filtered or Unfiltered leaders should influence their decision making.

Best quotes

“From psychology to political science to management to economics, researchers who study leadership argue or assume that individual leaders are surprisingly unimportant.” Page 3

“Organizations tend to select their leaders carefully, so managers become “more and more homogenous” the higher you go.” Page 4

“Leader impact can best be thought of as the marginal difference between what actually happened and what would have happened if the most likely alternative leader had come to power.” Page 5

“Thoroughly Filtered winners of the LFP will almost always be Modal. Leaders who have, somehow, bypassed filtration are far more likely to be Extremes. This means that it should be possible to identify high-impact leaders based solely on the extent to which their lives before taking power exposed them to filtration.” Page 9

“Emergencies may de-link evaluation and decision, allowing candidates who have flunked evaluation to gain power anyway because the crisis suspends normal decision-making or eliminates all the other available candidates.” Page 13

“Despite the positive connotations of the word innovation, most innovations fail. Extreme leaders are important because they make choices most leaders would not make. If most people would choose to do one thing and one person chooses to do something else, that person might be right—but probably not. Those who make such choices and succeed are remembered as geniuses. Those who fail are often not remembered at all, a selection bias that makes deviation from the norm seem a considerably better strategy than it usually is.” Page 16

“If an innovation were obviously superior, after all, then it would not be an innovation. For an innovation not to have already been adopted, it must be nonobvious that it will succeed. If an innovator waits until it is certain that his or her idea will work, others will have already adopted it. Although there may be some candidates so gifted that their judgment is consistently superior to that of their rivals, such people must be rare. If they are not, then much of the population of people they are competing with will have the same superior judgment, rendering it merely average once again.” Page 17

“Churchill was not discredited because of his prescient stand against Nazi Germany. Instead, his warnings about Nazi Germany were ignored because he had thoroughly discredited himself on a variety of issues long before Hitler arrived on the scene.” Page 155

“Churchill’s career shows that the same qualities that impeded his rise were crucial to his success under extraordinary circumstances while he was prime minister.” Page 156

“Filtered Modal leaders are most likely to fail not when they have defective personalities or are simply incapable but when the situation has changed to something completely different from what it was when they were passing through the LFP…Filtered leaders are well-adapted to the situation as it was, not necessarily to the situation as it is or will be.” Page 222

“The Extreme leader does what others would not do, even when others advise him or her against it. To make this sort of choice when the stakes are high takes enormous confidence. Sometimes, however, the Extreme’s advisers will be right. When that is true, the great Extreme leader will have the humility to defer to their judgment. It is this almost paradoxical combination of self-confidence and humility that marks the transcendently great leader.” Page 236

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ Roger L. Martin suggested that the best leaders are those who have this capacity and who, because they do, are able to reject a false choice and create a new option.” Page 238

Best illustration

Note: There are dozens of powerful illustrations in this book from the lives of leaders whose experience is used to test Leadership Filtration Theory.

“If you’re a grant-making foundation, for example, you have limited potential losses but unlimited potential gains. The worst case scenario for any individual grant is that it fails. The maximum possible loss is the amount granted. Gains, however, can be nearly infinite. The more unexpected the result from a scientific experiment is, the larger its implications. Only a surprising result can overturn accepted theories, but it is when accepted theories are replaced that science moves forward fastest.” Page 225

File under: innovation, risk

 Best idea

LFT suggests a variety of steps you can take that can help you pick positive Extremes and block negative ones: (1) avoiding deceptive signals, (2) matching leaders to situations and removing them from power when the situation changes, (3) taking seriously statements made by Unfiltered leaders before they take power, (4) choosing Unfiltered leaders who have been successful Filtered leaders in other contexts, and (5) shaping the position to the leader you choose. Page 227

 Best take away

If you only use one insight from LFT when you are choosing a leader, the one you should take away is this—trying to pick “the best leader” is the wrong way of thinking about the problem…You can improve the average quality of leaders by filtering them, but, as philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, filtration “is bound to select mediocrities.” You should think about choosing a leader the way you think about investing. When you are investing you can decrease your risk by diversifying. But you can only pick one person to lead your organization, so you can’t diversify your leadership. LFT shows that choosing a leader is about balancing risk and reward. You’ll want to risk in two major situations. The first is when only the best possible leadership can bring your organization success, and the second is when the purpose of your organization is such that it prefers short-term dominance to long-term survival.” Page 224


If you are going to use a search firm to select a new leader, insist they read this book and explain how LFT will play out in their process. Remember, search firms will almost always default toward risk aversion and therefore direct you toward a filtered leader.


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