The filtered leader

The filtered leader

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I love coffee. I used to get along with instant coffee but now that I have discovered the ritual of making coffee; getting freshly ground coffee, putting a filter over a coffee contraption and then slowly pouring the boiling water, the aroma alone would wake me up and the brew would prepare me with the sharpness of mind I need in order to do a whole day’s training or a keynote somewhere in the country.

I have used different kinds of filters for this daily ritual. The filters I use for this ritual gets me thinking. We call it “brewed coffee” but isn’t it more appropriate to call it “filtered coffee?”

Do you know that there is such a term as “Filtered Leaders?” And the question that still haunts us today is: “What makes a great leader?”

So I went on to consult my good friend Google and searched for “leaders” and “leadership” and, lo and behold, 232 million results came up. I narrowed it down and searched, “What makes a good leader.” And I had almost 37 million! We just can’t agree to what makes a good leader can we?

Academic research even showed the possibility that leaders may not even matter. Certain teams succeeded with or without a figurehead taking the credit according to their survey.

While there is the absence of a “figurehead,” the fact remains that when you put people together for a task, a leader will always emerge out of the group. While there are no designated “positions,” there will always be a leader there who would provide the function crucial towards the accomplishment of their desired objectives.

Certain studies showed that sometimes a personality with oozing charisma becomes the most important factor in whether the team would achieve success or not. But I am a little bit skeptical about this.

Charisma alone cannot make for good leadership. History would bare the fact that many despots who have plunged their people into hardships and pain were all very charismatic. And some wise guy says the word “charisma” in the dictionary is very closely located to the word “charlatan.”

Eric Barker in his latest book entitled: Barking up the Wrong Tree quoted Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda as having speculated that the reason for the inconsistency in the research was there are actually two fundamentally different types of leaders. The first kind rises up through formal channels, getting promoted, playing by the rules, and meeting expectations. These are the leaders that have been filtered. They know the rules. They are familiar with the corporate culture. They have the networks. They know whom to approach to get the job done and they know who the people are in the organization they need to befriend in order to rise up the rank. There is nothing inherently bad with this system.

As I do leadership training with many business organizations in this country I have observed that many “home-grown” leaders that are promoted to the top rank actually runs the business better than having someone from the outside come in and take charge.

Mukunda says: “By the time filtered candidates are in the running for the top spot, they have been so thoroughly vetted that they can be relied upon to make the standard, traditionally approved decisions. They are effectively indistinguishable from one another—and this is why much of the research showed little effect for leaders.” This system works well when business is predictable, economy stable and competition is linear.

There is however another type of leaders who are “unfiltered.” These leaders have not been vetted by the system and cannot be relied upon to make the “approved” decisions—many would not even know what the approved decisions are. They do unexpected things, have different backgrounds, and are often unpredictable. Yet they bring change and make a difference. Often that difference is a negative. Since they don’t play by the rules, they often break the institutions they are guiding. Some of these “unfiltered leaders” challenge the status quo, break rules, and through their “misguided beliefs” and insistence actually create change and in many situations bring the organization towards better horizons of opportunities especially in a highly competitive and disruptive economy. These are the transformative leaders but here is the rub, they should have the support to initiate change and to experiment with new ideas.

The “filtered leaders” who became successful today in my opinion are really “closet rebels and unfiltered leaders” just waiting for their time to come so they can initiate change. But I also see a challenge here. There are many “unfiltered leaders” whose unconventional way of thinking and actions are refused support by the status quo defending old timers and then these “rebels” either leave the organization in disgust or worst, becomes part of the system. So here you see the dynamics of the “filtered” and the “unfiltered” leaders working the system.

Filtered leaders would do very well but they have to be trained to be innovative as well as adaptive to change. Unfiltered leaders should be supported and be heard but they should also develop the tact and skills to get things done and get the buy-in of the guardians of the gates.

There is a difference between instant coffee and brewed or “filtered” ones. The first one is consistent and predictable. The second kind is unpredictable and challenges comfort and convention but in the context and culture of disruptive businesses and volatile economies we have today, these “unfiltered leaders” are crucial to make legacy businesses relevant, progressive and cutting edge.

Instant coffee is fine for me but I guess brewing coffee and filtering the ground beans would remain as my personal favorite at least for the current moment… until another new thing comes along.

Now you know why I don’t offer instant coffee but always serve freshly brewed coffee in all of my trainings and seminars.

(Send your leaders and high-potential people to learn leadership skills, to be inspired and to grow your business by attending Francis Kong’s Level Up Leadership this July 5-6 at Makati, Shangri-La Hotel. For registration or inquiries contact April at +63928-559-1798.)


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