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  • Jose Arrieta

The Contingent Leader

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

As a student of management and organization, I have spent time thinking about leadership. Many of my colleagues appreciate the qualities and relevance of a good leader. and try to foster them in people. Another group highlights that it is the followers who make the leader, not the person itself. It might be my background, but I have come to be wary of both views. I see the context as what makes followers look for a leader and gives this person the power to be historically relevant. To put it short, I argue that leaders are neither born nor chosen, they emerge from situations that require them.


Let’s see an example. As the biggest moral crisis of the 20th century came to be the people who dammed genocide looked for someone to take the lead. They chose an alcoholic and overall mean person and asked him to lead them. He explained that he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. He even repeated this was he asked the English House of Common for a vote of confidence that led to the biggest victory for human rights of the past century. I do not know much about Winston Churchill but I know I am grateful for his leadership.


In late 2015 after 196 nations signed the Paris agreement, we all fail to see a way forward. Investors felt the pressure as sovereign funds needed to leave behind carbon-intensive industries but it was unclear where to invest. At least for a while. Eventually, we turned our wallets to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who said: “some could interpret [his behavior] as characteristic of an imperialistic brat”. In his defense, he did save face by saying that the assertion “not consistent with the rest of [his] behavior”. Indeed, he told us how he is “just trying to think about the future and not be sad”. A true battle cry for a world starved of leadership.


Our collective faith in his plans made the stock of his company cost 90 times more per unit sold than its major competitor (see Appendix) and within five years Elon Musk became the richest human in the world. Yet, Musk is not especially impressed with how we teach the future generation of managers even saying that “there might be too many MBAs running companies. There is the MBA-ization of America which [may] not be that great.”.


At a personal level, I am certain that leadership education is important. As an employee, I know how important a good line manager can be for my mental health and motivation. And as a management scholar, I undoubtedly believe that training people to become better managers is good for society. I find that we might prepare our students to be more effective leaders. Yet, leaders, they’ll be only when the true contingencies come around.


Appendix:

Tesla market cap: 790 B (Jan 1st, 2021)

Tesla cars sold 2020: 0.5M

Toyota market cap: 153 B (January 1st, 2021)

Toyota cars sold 2020: 8.8 M

Tesla Multiplier = (Tesla Market Cap / Tesla Cars Sold ) / ( Toyota Market Cap / Toyota Cars Sold) = (790/0.5)/(153/8.8) = 90.1

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