I’ve experienced some leaders who definitely fit the mould of zombies so I’m delighted to see the great callout from Alex Haslam, Mats Alvesson and Stephen D. Reicher – it really challenges our thinking about just what leadership is.

Apparently, to kill a zombie you need to attack its head or brain, and that’s just what the authors do.

They go for the head by identifying eight axioms of zombie leadership. Here’s the myth and the reality:

  • Leadership is all about leaders – it’s not, it’s about followers
  • There are specific qualities all great leaders have – this is vexed as firstly it’s all about perception, and secondly the specific qualities involved are contentious
  • There are specific things all great leaders do – what the group needs and the circumstances require from the leader is more important
  • We all know a good leader when we see one – er, no, there is no such consensus
  • All leadership is the same – leadership changes with context
  • Leaders are elite, special people – treating leaders as special creates problems for the people they lead
  • Leadership is universally good – it isn’t; it can create inequality and tyranny
  • People can’t cope without leaders – leaders can destroy value in a group

Do you recognize this? I fear the answer may be yes but hope that it is no….

No wonder we have so much ‘Impostor syndrome’, and it is growing!  No wonder there’s so much toxic leadership.  No wonder there’s so much burnout!

There are however, plenty of leadership approaches and practices that are anti-zombie. In fact, as the authors point out, there’s broad consensus on what leadership is, and it’s not zombie leadership.

It is:

“the process whereby one or more people motivate one or more other people to contribute to the achievement of collective goals (of any form) by shaping beliefs, values, and understandings in context rather than by exercising stick-and-carrot behavioral control.”

Haslam and his co-authors identify four strategies to challenge zombie leadership:

  • Know what it is
  • Keep repeating the definition of leadership; bring the conversation and approach back to its critical features to embed the understanding in others
  • Recognize that zombie leadership has four key costs:
    • It doesn’t recognize the efforts of ordinary people
    • It alienates others
    • It introduces narcissism, complacency and is anti-growth
    • It reduces productivity and is unhealthy
  • Champion alternatives.
Quote of what zombie leadership is
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