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Zombie Leadership: The Leadership Lies that Just Won't Die

A recent publication in The Leadership Quarterly outlines 8 leadership fallacies the authors title “Zombie Leadership” (Haslam, Alvesson, & Reicher, 2024). They state that although these leadership principles continue to influence today's workplace, they have little research-based support. Nonetheless, they continue thriving in news articles, leadership books, blogs, and training programs. Join us as we discover what leadership zombies are still lurking in our boardrooms today. 

The 8 Leadership Zombies

"Leadership is all about the leaders”

The first leadership zombie focuses solely on the “leaders alone - what they know and have learned, their habits, behaviors, and practices, their handling of failure”, and various other characteristics. (Haslam et al., 2024). In doing so, this dismisses that “leadership is proved by followership” and fails to address the role of the followers or lower-level leaders such as managers. Authors Haslam et al., point out news articles such as “The Man Who Saved a BBC Orchestra” that single out “high-profile leaders for attention and valorization” while failing to mention the support of the group (Haslam et al., 2024).

Leaders have specific and special qualities

This leadership zombie lie perpetuates that “particular qualities (e.g., intelligence, charisma) equip particular people for leadership.” However, authors argue that it isn’t the existence of these qualities that make individuals leadership material, but rather that if the individual is “perceived to have these qualities by followers.” They cite various lists of attributes and skills that are all associated with leadership throughout history. For Socrates, courage was considered vital to leadership potential. But current lists include features such as intelligence and extroversion. They again state that “leadership is always about the relationship between any given leader and those who evaluate them”, not necessarily their skills and attributes (Haslam et al., 2024). 

Great leaders do specific things

This leadership zombie believes that there are specific actions and behaviors that all great leaders do. Researchers Haslam et al., reference articles such as “7 Things Leaders Do to Help People Change” as key examples of this leadership zombie. Individuals who live by this false principle look for “particular behaviors (e.g., being fair, initiating change)” as “the hallmark of effective leadership.” However, researchers argue that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, leaders should instead be “attuned to the circumstances of the group being led.” Ultimately, effective leadership is less about specific actions and more about adapting to followers' perceptions and the group context, emphasizing the need for a flexible and perceptive approach to leadership  (Haslam et al., 2024).  

Some leaders are better than others

Researchers point out that there is a general “consensus” that “some leaders are better than others.” However, the consensus on leadership greatness varies greatly based on racial, economic, and political backgrounds. Research shows that leadership appraisals vary by political leaning and are influenced by the cultural and temporal context (Uscinski & Simon, 2011; Felzenberg, 2003; Nichols, 2012). Leadership recognition, therefore, emerges as a social construction shaped by shared values and cultural contexts, highlighting the importance of contextual understanding in evaluating leadership. (Haslam et al., 2024)

“All leadership is the same”

Those following this leadership lie believe that “there is an essential ‘leadershipness’ that can be discerned across all contexts.” Haslam et al., state that this concept disregards the continual changes in the workplace and culture at large. They state that “what leadership looks like changes with context.” Leadership effectiveness is largely determined by the context, including the group's culture, history, and values, challenging the notion of a universal leadership essence. The idea of a consensus on leadership qualities often overlooks the influence of temporal and cultural contexts on perceptions of leadership. Leadership is not a static trait but a dynamic process that must adapt to the specific needs and aspirations of the group being led (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003; Spicer, 2020). Therefore, leadership skills are not universally transferable and instead must be contextually aware and tailored to the unique environment of each organization (Goodall & Pogrebna, 2015; Mumford et al., 2007, Haslam et al., 2024) 

“Leadership is a special skill for special people”

This leadership zombie instills that “leadership is an elite activity that is extraordinary, exclusive, and expensive.” However, leaders mustn't be treated as “superior” to their respective followers and/or groups. Researchers Haslam et al. (2024) state that when this happens, it can cause problems for the group at large. This elitist view of leadership fosters grandiosity, distances leaders from the everyday realities and needs of their teams, and ultimately undermines leadership effectiveness (Alvesson & Gabriel, 2016; Westerman et al., 2012). Research demonstrates that such division can demotivate employees, inhibit open communication, and discourage initiative (Steffens et al., 2020). This approach not only fails to improve organizational outcomes but also erodes the trust and collaboration essential for effective leadership, highlighting the need for a more inclusive and grounded understanding of leadership practices (Haslam et al., 2024).

“Leadership is always good and good for everyone”

This leadership zombie reflects the lie that “leadership is a universal good from which

everyone benefits.” However, this is not true according to Haslam et al. They state that “leadership can support inequality and tyranny” (Haslam et al., 2024). The dominant discourse in leadership development often idealizes leadership, emphasizing traits like authenticity and transformational potential as inherently positive (Alvesson et al., 2017; Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). However, researchers argue that this perspective neglects the potential negative impacts of leadership, such as narcissism and exploitation (Sankowsky, 1995; Schyns & Schilling, 2013), and treats harmful leadership as anomalies rather than subjects for critical analysis (Kellerman, 2004). The leadership development industry, capitalizing on this positive framing, fails to address the complexities and dualities of leadership impact. This approach calls for a more nuanced understanding of leadership in executive coaching, acknowledging that leadership effectiveness and ethics vary by context and can have unintended consequences (Haslam et al., 2024).

“People can’t cope without leaders” 

This leadership zombie believes that “everyone needs leadership and leadership is always required for group success.” This belief can be seen in headlines such as “The Kind of Leadership We All Need Today”. Haslam and colleagues state that “leadership can make groups less effective, especially if it leads followers to disengage” (2024). They cite research findings that indicate groups can self-organize and perform well without formal leaders, driven by shared goals and intrinsic motivation (Haslam et al., 1998, Howell et al., 1986, & Gronn, 2003) Studies show that traditional leadership can sometimes hinder group cohesion and performance, as it may alienate members and encourage passivity among followers (Reicher, 2001; Kerr & Jermier, 1978). This challenges the conventional wisdom on leadership in organizations, suggesting a shift towards recognizing the benefits of collective and distributed leadership models  (Haslam et al., 2024).

The main takeaway

In summary, the article "Zombie Leadership" by Haslam, Alvesson, and Reicher challenges eight outdated leadership myths, highlighting the flaws in traditional leadership beliefs that overemphasize the importance of individual leaders, ignore the contextual nature of leadership, and assume leadership is always beneficial and necessary. The authors argue for a more nuanced understanding that values adaptability, follower relationships, and ethical considerations, debunking the notion that leadership qualities are universal and inherently good  (Haslam et al., 2024).

Read the original research paper here.


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