Considerable progress has been made in the field of leadership in recent years. However, we argue that this is undermined by a strong residual commitment to an older set of ideas which have been repeatedly debunked but which nevertheless resolutely refuse to die. These, we term zombie leadership. 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. This review paper outlines eight core claims (axioms) of zombie leadership. As well as isolating the problematic metatheory which holds these ideas together, we reflect on ways in which they might finally be laid to rest.
In his award-winning book Zombie Economics, John Quiggin shows that, although considerable progress that has been made in economic theory and modelling over the last century, the field as a whole has been held back by commitment to an older set of ideas that resolutely refuse to die. This is despite the inadequacy of those ideas having been demonstrated over and over again. Accordingly, in the face of copious evidence that they are mistaken, there is a broad class of policy makers and practitioners who continue to espouse the virtues of such things as trickle-down economics, efficient and self-correcting markets, and unfettered privatization of public assets. Quiggin’s core point is that these ideas survive not because they are supported by evidence or by careful, critical thinking but rather because they accord with the interests of particular groups (e.g., venture capitalists, the uber-wealthy, and disciples of neoliberal ideology more generally; Crouch, 2011, Peck, 2010, Stiglitz, 2018). The ideas therefore instantiate what those groups want to believe and to make true. Moreover, “being already dead they can absorb all kinds of damage and keep lumbering on towards their targets” (Quiggin, 2012, p.240).
Unfortunately, economics is not the only domain where dead ideas continue to walk amongst us. In this article we focus on another important realm in which zombie ideas abound: the field of leadership. Indeed, as with Quiggin’s zombie economics, we suggest that dead ideas are particularly prevalent in this field precisely because the stakes are so high. After all, if you control the narrative of leadership you control one of the principal engines through which power and privilege are understood and reproduced — in organizations and in society at large (Gemmill & Oakley, 1992; Pfeffer, 1992).
Discussion: Understanding and countering the threat of zombie leadership
In their paper “When Zombies Attack: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection” a University of Ottawa research team concluded that a large-scale zombie outbreak would lead to societal collapse unless dealt with quickly and aggressively. The New York Times included the work among its top ideas of 2009.
Mogk, 2011, p.44.
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of upbeat models of leadership that provide normative theoretical frameworks to guide both science and practice. Despite their differences, these frameworks are generally couched in terms that affirm the virtues of leading in particular ways (e.g., through transformational leadership, authentic leadership, respectful leadership, ethical leadership, inclusive leadership, distributed leadership, servant leadership, reflexive leadership, or identity leadership; Alvesson, 2019). Regardless of whether or not these frameworks are valid or valuable, as a range of researchers have noted — and as we noted in discussing Axiom #7 above — the realities that people encounter on the ground are often far less rosy, and routinely fail to live up to the normative expectations that these models create (Cohen, 2016, Cohen, 2016; Schyns & Schilling, 2013; Sveningsson & Alvesson, 2016). As we also noted, this has led to a range of analyses that explain how we can detect aberrant toxic leaders and how we can protect ourselves against them (e.g., Lipman-Blumen, 2005).