Anyone who does research in the field of leadership will quickly be knee-deep in courses and textbooks describing a wonderful world of transformational leadership, inclusive leadership, authentic leadership, adaptive leadership, ethical leadership… Indeed, there is scarcely a positive adjective in the dictionary that has not been paired with leadership and served up as a recipe for the creation of a perfect world.

The reality, however, is altogether less appetizing. Here we are far more likely to encounter a very different brand of leadership: indifferent leadership, torpid leadership, self-indulgent leadership, corrupt leadership, divisive leadership, toxic leadership, and genocidal leadership.  We find none of these things in popular books on leadership and they only rarely rear their head in leadership courses, research, and training.

Why? What is going on?

One explanation concerns a leadership industrial complex (estimated to be worth a staggering $45 billion a year) that would hardly thrive by peddling doom and gloom.

Another is that ideas about leadership are profoundly shaped by dominant culture and ideology. The notion that leadership is all positive—and that all that is positive comes from leadership—aligns with the elitist mantra that the good in society trickles down from the top (and the complementary mantra that the bad in society seeps up from the bottom).

The problem isn't simply that the politics behind the glorification of leadership are pernicious. It is also that the underlying psychology of leadership is just plain wrong. 

To say this might sound controversial and antagonistic. But it really isn't. On the contrary, there is a near consensus among leadership scholars that popular ideas about leadership are misguided. Their limitations have been exposed time and time again. Theoretically. Empirically. Practically.

Yet regardless of how often and how comprehensively they are laid to rest, these ideas refuse to die. This, then, is the stuff of zombie leadership

In a recent Leadership Quarterly piece, we identify key axioms of zombie leadership and clarify why they are so problematic. There are eight of these, and the three core ones suggest that: (1) leaders have special qualities that separate the few who are destined to lead from the many who are destined to follow, (2) only those who are formally identified as having these qualities can lead and (3) group success depends upon, and reduces to, the actions of such leaders.

Around these ideas sit a cluster of other ideas.  These suggest that (4) all leadership is the same and that leadership is inherently (5) good, (6) recognizable, and (7) exotic. Finally, it is assumed that (8) people can't cope without leaders. Hence, we yearn for them and we are prepared to pay dearly for their services.

And pay dearly we do.

A mountain of evidence demonstrates the problems with these ideas. As well as being wrong they also fail to explain when, how, and why leadership is effective. More problematically still, they undermine the effectiveness of leaders. So zombie leadership isn't just ineffective, it's toxic.

A simple study underlines this point. We asked a cohort of commandos at the beginning of their officer training to indicate how cut out they were for leadership. At the end of the training, we asked the same cohort to indicate who amongst them they saw as leaders and who was deserving of the commando medal for leadership.

What we found was rather surprising: those most likely to put themselves forward as leaders at the start were least likely to be chosen as leaders at the end. Why? Largely because those who thought they already had what it takes to lead didn't bother to listen to their peers, to find out who they were and what they needed, or to apply themselves to the task of helping to meet those needs.

But turn on your TV, and you'll see a world overrun with zombie leadership—leadership that is harmful to followers, harmful to leaders, and, by increasing the distance between them, harmful to organizations, harmful to societies, and harmful to the planet.

So how can it be challenged?

First, to deal with a problem we must recognize it and be willing to call it out. We then need to work together to stamp it out.

So when you hear someone espouse an axiom of zombie leadership, challenge their assumptions and ask for empirical evidence. Do the same when you are invited to take part in a leadership training course that promises to make you special and to set you apart from others. Fight back against the creation of leadership cabals that devolve all power to centralized executives. 

In doing these things, you won't only be part of the Anti-Zombie Leadership Alliance, you'll also end up doing leadership a whole lot better.

For Further Reading

Haslam, S. A., Alvesson, M., & Reicher, S. D. (2024). Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us. The Leadership Quarterly, 34, 101770. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2023.101770

Peters, K., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). I follow, therefore I lead: A longitudinal study of leader and follower identity and leadership in the Marines. British Journal of Psychology, 109, 708-723. doi:10.1111/bjop.12312

Peters, K. & Haslam, S. A. (2018). To be a good leader, start by being a good follower. Harvard Business Review (August 8).

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Platow, M. J. (2020). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Alex Haslam is Professor of Psychology and Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland.  His research explores the contribution of group- and identity-related processes to social and organizational function with a particular emphasis on leadership and health.

Steve Reicher is Wardlaw Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews.  His work addresses social identity and group processes in the context of leadership, crowd behavior, and intergroup relations.