Zombie leadership

Zombie LeadershipA recent article in Harvard Business Review estimates that over $60 billion is spent every year on leadership development programs, but that the returns on these investments for employers “are not always clear”. Why is this? Are some providers of leadership development not very good at it? Are some of the leaders sent on these programs not up to be leaders? Are employers unclear about what they expect from leaders? Or do we have a distorted view of what we mean by leadership and what good leadership looks like?

In a landmark literature review and metastudy in The Leadership Quarterly, Alexander Haslam, Mats Alvesson, and Stephen Reicher have described the current worldview of leadership as Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us.

They argue that “Zombie leadership lives on not because it has empirical support but because it flatters and appeals to elites, to the leadership industrial complex that supports them, and also to the anxieties of ordinary people in a world seemingly beyond their control. It is propagated in everyday discourse surrounding leadership but also by the media, popular books, consultants, HR practices, policy makers, and academics who are adept at catering to the tastes of the powerful and telling them what they like to hear.”

In the paper, they outline eight dead ideas about leadership that they say we all need to debunk. When I was reading about these, I thought about two very different leaders on the world stage today, Zelensky and Putin, in order to test each of these popular but dead ideas. This is a précis of the paper’s axioms of zombie leadership.

  1. Leadership is all about leaders. No, leadership is proved by willing followership.
  2. There are specific qualities that all great leaders have. No, what matters is whether followers perceive leaders to have these qualities.
  3. There are specific things that all great leaders do. No, leadership requires behaviours attuned to the circumstances faced by the group.
  4. We all know a great leader when we see one. No, consensus is produced by privileging particular perspectives.
  5. All leadership is the same. No, leadership styles change (and need to change) with context.
  6. Leadership is a special skill limited to special people. No, treating leaders as superior to followers creates problems in the group, such as narcissism.
  7. Leadership is always good, and it is always good for everyone. No, it isn’t. They don’t. Leadership can breed dishonesty, tyranny, abuse, bullying and harassment.
  8. People can’t cope without leaders. No, leadership can make groups less effective, especially if poor leadership behaviours mean that followers disengage.

Over the last 20 years, I have learned what good leadership development is and isn’t the hard way. I have designed and delivered leadership programs for thousands of leaders. But my most effective work hasn’t been at scale when we’ve tried to boil the ocean; it’s been with leaders andtheir followers, as teams, when we’ve boiled the kettle to make a cup of tea. We’ve shared who we are, our life stories, and our values. We’ve talked about what we can each give to the team and what we need to get from the team. We’ve understood that leadership is a skill set that we can each develop and use for the benefit of the team, our work and the people who depend on our work.

“I’m no leader; I’m a little humble follower.” Muhammad Ali

Further Reading

Zombie leadership: Dead ideas still walk among us, The Leadership Quarterly, 2023

Thinking Allowed is a weekly blog of essential reading for anyone interested in better thinking and decision-making at work. It is written by Roger Steare, the Corporate Philosopher, a Financial Times columnist and author of books and ebooks with sales of over 600,000 copies.

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