The Unseen Leader - Business Leader News

The Unseen Leader

“A provocative look at what history really teaches us about effective leadership. This book will challenge you to rethink some of your core assumptions about what it takes to align people around common goals.”  – Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of THINK AGAIN and host of the podcast Re:Thinking

In the book, Gutmann delves into the exploration of how history can prompt a fresh perspective on the concept of leadership. He accomplishes this by delving into the experiences of four historical figures who are not commonly recognised as leaders in the traditional sense: Roald Amundsen, Winston Churchill, Toussaint Louverture, and Gertrude Bell. Gutmann’s aim is to unravel and challenge the prevailing wisdom about leadership, which has been heavily influenced by charismatic or heroic ideals, often propagated by leadership gurus.

Instead, he reveals that successful leadership often goes unnoticed and is not synonymous with epic struggles or the familiar stereotypes seen in Hollywood portrayals. History, as exemplified by these figures, shows that the most effective leaders are frequently those who work behind the scenes and are underestimated. Martin Gutmann, PhD, is a historian of both Swiss and American descent. He serves as a professor at the Lucerne School of Business within the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, situated in Switzerland.

Here is an excerpt from The Unseen Leader by Martin Gutmann.

What caught my attention early on in my reading was that among the great variety of approaches to studying leadership, there was one prominent trend: that of drawing inspiration and lessons from history’s great leaders. Ernest Shackleton, Winston Churchill, Erwin Rommel, Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, JFK, and even Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler made appearances in numerous books, articles, consulting pamphlets, and blogs.

However, as I delved into these texts on leadership in preparation for my teaching, I quickly noticed that the historical stories told in many of them were wholly disconnected from some of the most fundamental conclusions of contemporary historical scholarship. In the many blogs and articles about Churchill, for example, he was usually seated securely at the steering wheel of history, able to manipulate events at will through his words and actions. Moreover, the plot always featured Churchill as a heroic protagonist, under threat from every conceivable danger, who, thanks to his tenacious grit and a superhuman exertion of energy, was eventually able to gain the upper hand.

This corresponded remarkably little to the war that I had studied as a historian, in which human decisions and actions were consistently and gravely thwarted, diverted, complicated, or amplified by a complex set of interlinked technological, economic, and cultural drivers, not to mention the actions and decisions of countless other protagonists. Moreover, as a specialist in the Second World War, I knew that the secret to Churchill’s successful handling of the war had nothing to do with his penchant for bold words and action.

The culprit in this gross misreading of history is what I came to call the Action Fallacy—the mistaken belief that the best leaders are those who generate the most noise and sensational activity in the most dramatic circumstances.

Armed with this realisation, I set out to craft a new leadership story, one that was rooted first and foremost in the insights from historical scholarship. Rather than beginning with a narrow focus on what one or another boisterous and energetic leader said or did, I wanted to start by looking more broadly at challenging episodes in history. I wanted to first understand how professional historians—unconcerned with contemporary leadership theories and fads—reconstructed these events. Only then did I identify those individuals who had been most influential in the event’s outcome and sought to uncover their secrets?

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