Fortune has been running an on-line election for its Businessperson of the Year. Here is how Fortune describes the contest:
On Nov. 18, Fortune magazine will name its Businessperson of the Year, an honor that goes to the leader who made the biggest mark in business in 2010... We start with 32 contenders, seeded and matched-up by the editors of Fortune. Go through each contest and pick which leader you think made a bigger impact in 2010. You must select a winner in each bracket to submit your results. At the end of the week, we'll close voting, find the winners, and return Monday with a new round, repeating until the winner is revealed on Monday, November 8th.
Of course, I find the contest fun and interesting. I'm particularly intrigued by the two finalists: Alan Mulally, Ford's CEO, and Steve Jobs, Apple's iCEO. While it's fun to take a look at this matchup, as well as the entire bracket, the entire premise of the contest should not cause us to miss a key point about leadership. The vote is supposed to be about who made the biggest impact. However, the situations faced by these leaders are quite different. In 2010, Mulally was in the midst of engineering a massive turnaround. At the same time, Jobs led an already very successful company who was trying to bring the next big breakthrough innovation to market. It's like comparing apples to oranges. They both made a huge impact, but in a quite different way. Let's take it one step further.
As we assess all these folks as leaders, we ought to ask: Are their leadership capabilities well-suited to the current situation they face, and would they be less appropriate for a very different context? We love comparing people, but we have to remember that some leaders' skills are particularly amenable to certain kinds of situations. Some folks are great turnaround artists, but might not be the right fit for a young start-up trying to get off the ground. Others may be great at launching a new business, but not so effective at scaling a business. Of course, some leaders are incredibly adept at adapting their approach to different situations and contexts. However, not all leaders can do that; some simply have an approach that works better in particular contexts.