Why I don’t believe in “Leadership” any more

17th July 2019

We love to worship, and occasionally demonise, our leaders. Justified or not, that says something about us. Of course, this has always happened in politics, but it happens in business too. Incoming CEOs find that their reputations preceed them, just as outgoing CEOs are often made the scapegoat for the failures that happened on their watch. Success, and failure, are very public.

An unhealthy obsession

The more than 180,000 Leadership titles on Amazon and 1,640,000 articles on Google Scholar, and the untold millions that businesses spend each year on leadership development programmes, don’t seem to be helping real world business Leaders, judging by the levels of extra support they need to help run their businesses. The overwhelming volume of material could explain why so many Leaders ignore it all and just follow the latest fad. It also makes me think that the Leadership industry is overcomplicating and mythologising Leadership, to the detriment of the very people who most need help.

Assumptions about Leadership

Most of the material on Leadership encourages us to make some pretty sweeping assumptions. For example;

Leadership is a ‘thing’; it’s either something you can do with a bit of training, or it’s a natural ability you’re born with. But the reality is that it’s not a single thing, it’s a blend of many skills.

Leadership is a tide that lifts all boats; ‘good’ leadership makes businesses more successful and ‘bad’ leadership kills businesses. But there are many successful businesses run by inept leaders, just as there are many unsuccessful businesses run by highly capable people.

Leadership ‘styles’ are real; the idea that some Leadership styles are somehow better than others, and that people consistently exhibit the behaviours of a particular style, is as valid as the idea that we all have particular learning styles. We don’t. We all use bits of each style. And that’s also what good Leaders do – they adapt their style to their circumstances.

You’re either a Leader or a Follower; good leaders support their team. Good followers ‘step up’ when required. None of us are just one or the other. And you don’t only find Leaders at the top. Leadership happens at all levels of the business.

Leaders are autonomous; there is a popular myth that Leaders are only accountable to ‘the business’. In the real world we are all accountable to someone, whether it’s the Chairman, the shareholders, customers or the public.

Leadership training works; effective Leadership training is not a one-size-fits-all, scattergun approach, blasting the trainees with a bit of everything and seeing what sticks. That doesn’t work. This situation may be changing, but there’s still a hell of a long way to go.

A different perspective

As Slavoj Zizek says, all we really want from our Leaders is for them to do their job properly. In practice, and I know it doesn’t sound glamorous, that means being effective business managers. In other words, CEOs.

So why don’t we cut out all the Leadership development bullshit and focus instead on developing CEO skills?

Let’s teach Leaders how to deal with uncertainty, complexity, virtual teams, cultural differences and group dynamics.

Let’s help them to align their team and get things done.

How to be good CEOs.


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