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Home » Why Do We Celebrate Incompetent Leaders? – Martin Gutmann (Transcript)

Why Do We Celebrate Incompetent Leaders? – Martin Gutmann (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of management historian Martin Gutmann’s talk titled “Why Do We Celebrate Incompetent Leaders?” at TEDxBerlin 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Wrong Leaders

I would like to invite you on a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend that we’re going on a polar expedition together, all of you and me. And we need to hire a captain. And we have two resumes in front of us.

One comes from a man who has already successfully achieved all four of the major polar goals, the North Pole and the South Pole, and the Northeast and the Northwest Passage. In fact, three of these, he was the first person to accomplish. Let’s call him Candidate A.

Candidate B is a man who set off for the Antarctic four times. Three times is the man in charge. And every time resulted in failure, catastrophe, or death. Who should we hire? It’s not meant to be a trick question. I think it’s obvious. We want Candidate A. He’s the man for the job. But in reality, we often trick ourselves into hiring Candidate B or someone like him.

Overlooking the Truly Gifted

How do I know? Well, both of these men were real polar explorers who lived during the so-called heroic age of polar exploration. And in the centuries since, one of them has been consistently celebrated as a leadership role model in best-selling books, blogs, documentaries, podcasts, and an endless stream of social media posts. But surprisingly, shockingly, this is not Candidate A, but Candidate B, the very much disaster-prone Anglo-Irish explorer, Ernest Shackleton.

Meanwhile, Candidate A, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, by any metric, the most successful polar explorer to have ever lived, has been largely forgotten. I did a quick search in my university’s library catalog before this talk, and I found no fewer than 26 books that celebrate Shackleton’s leadership qualities. For Amundsen, I found four, two of which I wrote. What is going on here?

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