Dr. Martin Gutmann is a Swiss-American historian and Professor at the Lucerne School of Business, Switzerland. His recent work includes Before the UN Sustainable Development Goals: A Historical Companion, which came out in 2022 with Oxford University Press, and just out this month, The Unseen Leader: How History Can Help us Rethink Leadership.
Gutmann has a Ph.D. in History from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, USA and an Executive MBA from IE Business School, Spain. His writing has appeared in Journal of Contemporary History, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Journal of Modern European History, and Journal of Contemporary European History.
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Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate, and conversations-to-text do not always translate perfectly. I include it to provide you with the spirit of the conversation.
Scott Allen 0:00
Okay, everybody, welcome to Phronesis. Thank you so much for checking in wherever you are in the world. Today, I have a return guest, Dr. Martin Gutmann. And we had just this wonderful conversation. If you have not checked out that episode. Early on in the podcast, we talked, and it was just a really fun conversation. He is a Swiss-American historian and professor at the Youth Lucerne School of Business in Switzerland. His recent work includes ‘Before the UN Sustainable Development Goals: A Historical Companion,’ which came out in 2022 with Oxford University Press. And just out, ‘The Unseen Leader: How History Can Help Us Rethink Leadership.’ Martin, I, again, go back to our conversation, I think it was really the first time, and I've had a few historians on the program in recent years. I just really love the perspective and I love this strand of how we can explore the topic of leadership. So, I'm excited to have the conversation today. What else do listeners need to know about you before we jump in and begin the conversation?
Martin Gutmann 1:08
Well, first of all, thank you for having me back. I had a really good time the first time around. What was that, two or three years ago? Something like that. And I do still listen to your show, even before I was on the first time, regularly, because you do bring in so many different perspectives on leadership, not just the historical one. So, it's enriching and that's why I'm happy to be back and have another discussion with you. What else do people need to know about me? I'm not sure. I'm in the traditional academic club, teaching, love the research I do, love the writing, and have a couple of hobbies on the side and three kids that keep me pretty busy. So, that's my life in a nutshell.
Scott Allen 1:48
If I remember correctly, there was running in the mountains. If I'm not mistaken, is that accurate? It's in your past, at least, correct?
Martin Gutmann 1:55
That is accurate. As I'm getting older, I'm finding running a bit harder, but I am still doing my best to make it up and back down. As you get older, it's the down part that tends to hurt more than the up part when you're running up and down mountains. But yeah, I do my best to get out.
Scott Allen 2:15
That's never been a part of my… ‘When you're running up and down mountains,’ I love it.
Martin Gutmann 2:20
That depends on where you live. That's really what kind of running you do.
Scott Allen 2:24
Switzerland's probably pretty good for that. Well, okay, so your new book is called ‘The Unseen Leader: How History Can Help Us Rethink Leadership.’ So, talk a little bit about the unseen leader, what do you mean by that? I’m kind of interested and intrigued.
Martin Gutmann 2:40
Yeah. So, I really make just one point in this book. I challenge us to rethink how we talk about leadership and how we think about leadership. So, rather than getting into the details or the psychology of what a leader is up to with the decision-making process and the impact that has on followers, I tried to take a step back and just think about what's the story that we intuitively tell when we think about a leader? What's this kind of rote narrative that we grasp for if we want to think about a leader? And maybe a bit to the origin story first of this book, as you mentioned, but I have for over a decade worked in management departments. It's kind of a quirk of my career, and I've quite enjoyed it. So, I think that's where I'm happy from now on, but it's not what I imagined early in my career. But, long story short, I was tasked very much last minute, at one point, by a dean, this was at a different school, to teach a course on leadership because the person who normally taught it was unavailable last minute. And so, I said, “Yeah, I can do that. That's interesting.” I started reading everything I could get my hands on regarding leadership: journals, and books, and everything else. And one of the things that caught my attention was that using historical figures as kind of case studies, as inspiration, as the fodder for leadership theories, quite prominent, actually, not just among historians but these historical figures: Churchill and Shackleton, and Napoleon, they appear in pamphlets from consulting firms, they appear in all kinds of leadership blogs, and so on and so forth. So, that was interesting to me as a historian. But I also realized pretty early on that some of the assumptions that I make as a historian about how individuals can shape history differ dramatically from the assumptions inherent in a lot of these texts. My take was that the truly influential individuals and what it is they do to shape the outcome of events is a bit harder to spot, therefore, the ‘unseen’ part in my title. The book is really an attempt to shed light on these leaders that have gone on unnoticed to some extent because often what they do is something we don't necessarily recognize as leadership.
Scott Allen 5:20
Well, and I remember our first conversation where you were really just kind of blowing my mind about Roald Amundsen, and here's an individual who has accomplished incredible feats. Absolutely just incredible, and we'd never heard of him. And so interesting, so interesting. And, as I understand it, I think we touched on this a little bit last time, but history, or that stream of knowledge, at least, historically, has tended to dissenter the person or the individual and focus a little bit more on the context, correct?
Martin Gutmann 5:56
Yeah. That's exactly right. In my new book, I use this example of a river. And we can imagine the leader trying to cross this river. And if there's a strong current, it's going to be these currents much more than any individual movements of the leader that will determine where he or she ends up on the other side. And it's really the leader’s interaction with these currents that's going to make or break their endeavor rather than their actions themselves. And this is where I think there's a bit of this gap between the leaders we tend to focus on and the leaders we should be focusing on. If somebody haphazardly jumps into the water, almost drowns, is making a bunch of noise, looking back in history, we tend to say, “Wow, that's the leader,” because this guy, he's really going for it, everybody's attention is on this person. Whereas, it might really be somebody who doesn't have to generate a lot of this excess noise, looks very steady, finds the perfect way of interacting with these currents, and makes it across without a lot of drama and a lot of fuss. And, in terms of polar exploration, you're absolutely right. We talked about slap time. Roald Amundsen was this explorer who was just stunningly successful, consistently so, but his expeditions were always or nearly always drama-free. So, they make for bad reading; therefore, he doesn't make it into a lot of these case studies that are so popular in our business school and elsewhere. The explorers who kind of fumble into things, made a lot of noise, had a lot of drama, and then, somehow, managed to extricate themselves, in the end, they're the leadership examples that are profiled in a lot of these case studies that are still used to this day.
Scott Allen 7:47
Well, and is that kind of dancing around the action fallacy that you talk about in the book?
Martin Gutmann 7:51
Yeah. That's the term that I kind of give to our… I would say it's our mistaken belief that leadership is characterized by movement, energy, drive, and boldness in the face of harrowing odds. This lively action and this boldness are actually a testament to somebody's leadership medal, so I find that to be false. And I don't suggest that being able to respond to a crisis isn't a good thing for a leader to be able to do, even just looking more recently Zelenskyy in Ukraine. I think when Russia launched this awful invasion, everybody, including the US, was expecting the Ukrainian leadership to flee. They, in fact, offered… Biden offered Zelenskyy a ride out. He said, “We will pick you up. You can relocate to the US; it's over anyway.” And he's like, “No, I'm going to stay here, I'm going to fight it out. And I know that this comes at great risk to me, to my family, and so on.” And so, in that case, he's staring danger in the face, that's brilliant. But that doesn't explain why Ukraine is still, to this day, successfully prosecuting this war. So, there's a lot more at work if we examine a longer period that is a true testament to the leadership and management skills at work. So, that's a little bit of what I'm going for in the book. What I would also say is, in terms of a crisis, and Shackleton here is a case in point, this famous British explorer whose journey on The Endurance is a pillar of historical leadership studies. I found in my research that a significant portion of the crisis that he was faced with was self-inflicted, or could have been avoided, or was avoided by other explorers such as Amundsen. And then, we have to ask ourselves, is the leader who kind of creates his own crisis and then manages to extricate him or herself the person we want to hold up as a role model or learn from, or is it the leader who doesn't end up in that many crisis situations? I would say the latter.
Scott Allen 10:06
Yes. You do touch on Roald in this book, and that's great. Are there some other individuals that maybe listeners haven't heard of? And I'm not asking you to go super in-depth on them, but who are some of these individuals who just kind of quietly went about their work, who did incredible things, and changed some of that course of history like Amundsen had?
Martin Gutmann 10:29
Yeah. So, in the end, I ended up profiling only four leaders in this book. This was a decision I had to make as a writer; more examples would kind of give a broader pool of contexts and time periods. So, there would have been a certain value in that. On the other hand, because I really prioritize us as the observer, understanding the complexity of the context, and understanding how the individual leader interacts with that, and how they understood it, etc., it requires quite a bit of writing; you can't do this superficially. And therefore, to keep it at a book-length, four was really the maximum that I could do. So, it's really four biographical studies, if you will, under one roof. And so, in addition to Amundsen, whom you also discussed at length last time, I profiled Toussaint Louverture, who led the only truly successful slave revolt, this was on the island that would later become Haiti, against the most powerful European empires; British, the Spanish, and France under Napoleon. And he started off as an illiterate slave and worked his way up to be both a military and a political leader, who, in my mind, stands out as one of the most competent in this period. Now, of course, there are several reasons why he is not profiled as often as Napoleon, Washington, and these other leaders of this revolutionary period; he was a contemporary of theirs. I think the first one is racism, that the history books in France and the US in the aftermath were obviously written by, usually, white men, who tended to profile people who looked like them. But I think there's more to it as well, which is that he doesn't quite conform to this heroic Shackleton-type leader. He was a big proponent of retreats, and he negotiated a lot. And so, he's not the military leader, always leading from the front with a saber in his hand. And so, he's not a Hollywood-like material in that sense. He doesn't conform to the action fillups, as I would call it. So, he's another person I profiled in the book. Then I look at Gertrude Bell, who was a remarkable woman and an explorer who kind of mapped large areas of the deserts in the Middle East. And in the period before and after the First World War. And in the aftermath of that war, as these various European empires, but also scientists, and a lot of local tribes were trying to reconstruct a region in the aftermath of the war, she emerges… Well, she doesn't emerge; she remains very much behind the shadows. But in hindsight, we can see that she really leads the effort of creating an independent Arab state that's built on pretty sound principles of good governance, etc. In our recollection of this period, the person who stands out is T. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, as he's called. Again, classic, Hollywood-esque leader. A gun in his hand leading from a camelback. But he himself admits in his writing that it was really Bell who did the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting in this period. So, she's another one on that profile. And then the fourth person is Churchill. And Churchill is kind of a special case because I think he's picked out by many people as the great leader, or one of the great leaders of the 20th century. So, what am I suggesting by including him in a book titled ‘The Unseen Leader?’ And with Churchill, I would say, he really was the architect or one of the primary architects of the Allied success in the Second World War, but not for the reasons that are often cited. And again, I think this action fallacy here is at work. There's this interpretation, especially in a lot of movies, about Churchill and some of the more popular writing that it was his charisma, his speeches, and his speeches are great, that this is what kind of inspired this reluctant nation to fight on. This gave them the strength and the vision to stick it out. And that it's also what's often cited, it's his kind of hounding of his generals. Again, this action-prone attitude. There's lots of great quotes by Churchill. There's a very famous quote and famous in the sense that it's often appearing on LinkedIn threads, etc., by Churchill, in which he says, “I never worry about action, only inaction.” So, it's really easy to read into Churchill's success his penchant for the offensive, for always kind of speaking in grand strokes, and kind of hounding people to get things done. And he did all of these things and was certainly valuable in leading Britain to a successful outcome in the war. But if grand words alone could win wars, then Hitler and Mussolini would have won because they were, even more so than Churchill, the masters of rhetoric of energizing an audience, etc. So, I think there's a lot of misinterpretations about Churchill in his role. And I think, if we look behind the scenes, that a lot of recent works on Churchill tend to support this conclusion is that there were two factors that ultimately led to a successful outcome in the war. That was that he was able to, in his own words, drag the United States into it. And looking back, we kind of tend to take that for granted. Yes, of course, the US would join Britain in the war and fight against this Nazi threat, but in the summer of 1940, when Britain had lost its fighting partner, France, and was kind of facing Germany on its own, on its own too is a bit of the wrong term since they have the whole British Empire, but let's leave that point behind for a second. So, in the summer of 1940, it's by no means sure that the US was going to do anything about this situation in Europe. There's a strong isolationist movement. And after Pearl Harbor, the natural inclination will be for the US to focus solely on Japan. And that's really Churchill's doings; he launches a very, very deliberate, what we today would call an advocacy campaign, to build support among the political class in the US, among the population, and among Roosevelt, for a US entry into this war. And then, Churchill also is very deliberate and puts a lot of energy into creating an effective coordinating mechanism between these two allied armies, which, again, is not something you take for granted when two sovereign states fight together. And they really were able to fight together with a lot of generals and officers working in the services of the other countries. So that's the one thing, and the other thing is more than any other leader in that war, he understands the interplay between science, between effective governance and kind of grand strategy. This isn't a war that can be won by rhetoric, by inspiration. You really have to leverage industrial production, new scientific insights, and couple that with a long-term strategy, and that's something that he, more than the other leaders, is able to master. Also, thanks to the fact that he had been in government for some 40 years, he had essentially been a minister in most briefs of the British government, so he understood this machinery better than anybody else.
Scott Allen 18:23
Well, I like how you're framing that because I think you're right. A lot of times, we don't, even within that very public example of a ‘leader,’ quote-unquote, we don't necessarily explore the complexity or the nuance of that individual's expertise or actions. We tend to oversimplify it into, “Oh, he gave this speech, and it was wonderful. And that was just awesome.” Even if you look at… And I know that you have expertise in Nazi Germany, I think it was on Netflix I watched Hitler's Inner Circle. I don't know if you've seen this documentary, but underneath Hitler was this group of individuals who were horribly atrocious characters in their own right and moving that vision forward. We often don't give credit to, and I use that word not in a positive way, but Hitler is the person who's held up, and there's this team around him of individuals who were horrible and did great damage in their own right. Would you agree?
Martin Gutmann 19:36
I would agree entirely on a few different levels. And I do talk a bit about Hitler as well, in contrast to Churchill in the sense that they both were great charismatic leaders were able to inspire people through their words, but Hitler is a relatively incompetent manager. He is disinterested in the functioning of government, doesn't understand how to turn his vision into policy, and usually resorts to just yelling at people when the things he wants to happen don't happen. And you're right that, especially if we look at something like the Holocaust, obviously, this is something Hitler set his sights on: the extermination of the European Jewish population and many other groups of people. And he put a lot of personal energy into making it happen. But it could not have happened with him alone; there were really a lot of highly motivated and highly skilled leaders and managers below him who made it happen. So, you're absolutely right there. And I think maybe taking a step back and just discussing a more general question. I know that in some leadership literature, there's this distinction made between leadership and management. I think it was John Kotter who wrote that leadership is about dealing with change, and management is about dealing with complexity. I think that's a useful analytical perspective to take, to acknowledge that certain roles require, perhaps, more competencies in the other than the former, and certain people are better at one or the other. But I would say, in real life, you need both, and they're often very intermeshed. It's kind of hard to separate them entirely; that's a bit of an artificial exercise. And I see that with these leaders I look at and other ones, we talked about Zelenskiy as well, that, to be successful, you really have to master both of these hats. You have to be able to wear both hats.
Scott Allen 21:38
Well, that would be an interesting kind of strand we could go down right now. What's interesting is, okay, let's look at Roald for a moment; probably an incredible manager. Incredible at locking down the details, locking down the specifics. “We're going to hunker down here for six months, actually get to know the people, learn from them.” There are insane levels of strategy there. But maybe he was less interested in some of that public self-promotion, making a big deal of, “This is what I've accomplished.” And some of that action fallacy where you have some individuals who may have fallen into some of that, and then they're self-promoting. It's so interesting. I wonder if some of these individuals were… I think of him in the very limited knowledge that I have, as maybe someone who is very interested in the puzzle and the work of getting that done and less so interested in the fame, or the notoriety, or some of those elements of that work. Not that all leaders are interested in fame and notoriety, but back to your distinction of leader manager, it would be really fun because I imagine, again, he was an incredible leader. And the fact that he could influence these individuals to really push through because that was not easy work, right?
Martin Gutmann 23:07
No, that's absolutely right. And I think his case, or polar exploration, really demonstrates that both of these competencies or skill sets are very much intermeshed. Like if you're a bad planner or a bad manager, things will go wrong when you enter these very icy and cold waters up north or down south. But yeah, there are leadership challenges that things are not going to turn out the way you thought they would, you have to lead; at this time, it was men, primarily, through very harrowing experiences. You have to keep your motivation high. So, these things go hand in hand. And you're right that Amundsen was less concerned with promoting himself. He got better at it, or he became more interested in it over the course of his career because he realized that, as his goals got bigger, he required more funding. And he did not have the Royal Geographic Society or some other large London-based institution to support him, the Royal Navy, etc., so he had to come up with a lot of the money himself through investors and kind of smaller foundations. So, having a bit of a public profile certainly helped. But what becomes clear when you read about his life is that he was the opposite of a lot of the British explorers who liked the exploring side because of the access and the prestige it gave them when they were back in London. They liked the idea of being an explorer more than actually being out there. And Roald made…
Scott Allen 24:44
Living for 8 months on the ice with the locals. (Laughs)
Martin Gutmann 24:48
Exactly. Yeah. And, for Amundsen, you really get the sense through his writing and the people who were with him on these trips and writing about him that he is in his element, and he would much rather be out there somewhere on the ice than at home dealing with paperwork, or paying bills, or giving speeches. But I don't want to suggest that leaders who build a public profile are necessarily bad or poor leaders, I think it's just that that is, in and of itself, not what sets leaders apart. Churchill was very deliberate about how he built his own image from an early age on. And he was a prolific writer who liked to put himself at the center of that writing. So, he was keenly aware of how he could shape his legacy. Gertrude Bell, on the other hand, refused the interview requests that she got; she was completely disinterested in that. And Louverture, the other main character I look at, falls somewhere in between. I think when it had a strategic purpose, he would write op-eds to newspapers. But this was also a different time when people didn't have LinkedIn accounts and Instagram accounts. But, again, I think it's nice to have in certain scenarios if you know how to brand yourself, but it is not always the key mark of somebody who's a good leader.
Scott Allen 26:12
Well, there's, at least in our world right now, as we're kind of exploring some of these topics, my mind goes to the word intentionality. And that I may not be disposed to be an incredible manager, am I aware of that? Am I open to having that knowledge? And do I make up for that by having people on the team who have that skill? And then, am I open enough to listen to those individuals when, perhaps, my perspectives are limited, or my perspectives are not the knowledge that's needed in this situation? I'm about to start Musk's biography, the Isaacson biography of Musk, and that's at least an interesting couple of the interviews that I've watched. Here's an individual who's almost micromanaging the details as his grand vision, but he's also an individual who is not necessarily known as someone who will take feedback; people are afraid to give him the bad news, and there's fear. And that's going to take a very special individual to work through that with him so that he stays open and understanding of some of the situational complexities that he might be missing because we all suffer from, what is it, 180 cognitive biases that limit our ability to actually make sense of the world? You've got to have a certain level of humility here. And, to your point, if I'm Hitler and I'm just yelling at people and screaming when things aren't going, then that causes fear, and that causes distrust, and that limits you from seeing the realities in the context, thankfully, so, in that case, I guess.
Martin Gutmann 27:58
Yes, indeed. I think the sad truth is that toxic leaders can and have accomplished a lot before their toxic leadership style catches up with them, at which point, their projects tend to fall apart. But it is unfortunate that some of these characters… And I would say the jury's still out with Musk in terms of his… Tesla's been a great success, but I think success also has to be measured in how he makes people work for him feel, the impact he has on society in general. And there, I'd say that the jury is still out.
Scott Allen 28:39
100%. There's a sustainability element here. What are the sustainable behaviors? To go to a US-centric example, you have John Wooden who is a famous basketball coach. Very successful UCLA, had a very sustainable approach to coaching. And you have a Bobby Knight, where it fires bright and hot, but it's not necessarily a sustainable approach. And so, it's just very, very interesting, the conversation. How are you planning to use this in the classroom? Because, Martin, I love the perspective. In some ways, it pushes back on some of these myths that we can fall into. And I think the reality is that there's all shades, there's all shades of individuals. Whether it's someone who was completely uneducated, quote-unquote, ‘formally,’ and really rose to the highest levels, or someone who isn't necessarily interested in the notoriety or the fame, or someone who can combine, not only the policy and the management, and the just understanding of the different levers that need to be pulled, but then also stand up and give the speech to motivate the masses in Churchill. It's all shades, right? And you're pushing back on this common narrative, and I really enjoy that.
Martin Gutmann 30:05
It's something that I really do hope to integrate into my teaching, especially in executive education programs and settings where I get to interact with people who lead in very complex organizations and at a very high level already. And I think what I'm hoping to do there is to challenge them to rethink how they assess leadership potential in others, and also in themselves. I call it the action fallacy in my book, this idea that we tend to look to the persons who make the most noise and kind of create and generate the most activity in their teams as the natural leaders, when, in fact, very effective leaders might not need to generate a lot of noise, there might not be any drama, etc. And there's actually a lot of literature outside of the historical domain that gets to this point as well. There's the Babel hypothesis, which has been quite popular in recent years, that suggests that the person who talks the most, regardless of what they're saying, will be identified by others as a leader. Keith Grint has written about a similar phenomenon that leaders learn to redefine things as a crisis because that will garner more attention in the long run. So, there seems to be a consensus from a lot of different corners that our ability to identify the right individuals as leaders is not always optimal. And I think that's what I would like to get across in teaching as well, is that maybe in the organizations or the teams somebody's involved in, perhaps there's somebody who really has a vital contribution to make or is already making a vital contribution, is influencing others in a very healthy and positive way, and also kind of shaping a positive outcome for that team without being noticed because they don't fulfill our stereotypical Hollywood-esque notion of what a leader should look and behave like. And maybe that happens to be they themselves because how we talk about ourselves, the story we tell about ourselves, is, of course, also immensely powerful. And if you yourself don't conform to what you think a leader should behave and look like, then you might not take yourself as seriously as you should.
Scott Allen 32:30
Yeah. That may not identify that way. Fun conversation, fun conversation. Again, my mind is kind of on this Musk biography just because I find him to be an interesting character. But Isaacson will say that he manufactures drama. And how sustainable is that? It's going to be very interesting to watch. And you do have some of these individuals throughout history who are kind of forces of nature, so to speak, who can kind of move through that, or cross that river, and they do make a dent. And, of course, to horrible ends and to great ends, but by no means does it have to be that way, and by no means is that the only model that we should be looking to. So, sir, what have you been listening to? What have you been reading? What's caught your attention when you're not writing books, (Laughs) and researching all of this very, very cool stuff? What's caught your attention recently that listeners might be interested in?
Martin Gutmann 33:37
So, I haven't had as much time to read and listen to things as I'd like lately because I've been working on finishing this book. I just ordered Adam Grant's new book, ‘Hidden Talent.’ That will be out in October this year, I believe. And I'm very excited for that. He's also one of these persons where I'm happy to hear his opinion on anything because it's going to be good, it's going to be insightful and will change my perspective. And this topic, from what I gather, how a person's potential can unfold over the course of a lifetime is not always about the born genius, etc. I don't know, I'm just really fascinated. I'm curious to read more about this, so I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of that book.
Scott Allen 34:25
Well, and for listeners, Adam Grant gave a plug for Martin's book. So, you know it's good if he's putting his stamp of approval on this. So we were talking ahead of the recording, I said that is awesome. Congratulations on getting his stamp of approval on a publication. I think it’s just an incredible win. So, good work on that. And I, too, yeah, I'm excited to read that. I loved ‘Think Again.’ His perspective on the world is just another one that's a very important one to pay attention to and have on your radar. Sir, we will do it again. I really appreciate it. Best of luck with this book. Best of luck with all of the promotion that comes at this point. And thank you so much. Thanks for looking at this topic from a little bit of a different perspective and a very, very important perspective. As always, thank you, sir.
Martin Gutmann 35:22
Thank you so much, Scott. It's always a pleasure.
Scott Allen 35:24
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