Zombie Leadership

Ramesses II is regarded as the most powerful pharaoh who lived. A pre-eminent leader of his time. He reigned over Kemet (roughly modern-day Egypt) from 1279BC to 1213BC. During his 90 years on the banks of the Nile he managed to wage 20 wars and sire 160 children, with 8 wives and more than 200 concubines. He was obsessively self-aggrandising and had more statues erected to himself than any other pharaoh. Gargantuan rock temples, chiselled with his image, were a specialty and he wasn’t shy about claiming the building contributions of others for himself.

The history books record all this and much more. By contrast, there is scant reference to the legions of followers who made things happen.

Versions of this same story, lauding the contributions of leaders while virtually ignoring everyone else, have been repeated innumerable times since Ramesses’ days.  As if history is a game of join-the-dots, connecting one despotic, overwhelmingly male, narcissist to the next.

Perhaps we are predisposed to rollicking tales of individual leader exploits. But those in positions of power and influence are also apt to perpetuate a self-serving narrative. Having heard it so often, the rest of us have internalised the inflated myth that those who occupy leadership roles are imbued with exceptional natural or learned leadership qualities.

In their paper, recently published in The Leadership Quarterly, Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us, Haslam, Alvesson and Reicher bust this myth, and others, wide open. They systematically debunk many of the old unsubstantiated chestnuts about how we think of leaders and assert that leadership is a group process and ultimately about the activities of collectives, not just individuals.

We couldn’t agree more.

Leadership 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 understanding in context, rather than exercising carrot-and-stick control.

Haslam et. al.

(See links to ABC interview and published article at the end of this blog).

It’s not that leadership doesn’t matter, it absolutely does. It’s just that its importance relative to effective teaming, is overstated. As Forbes Magazine (June 2019) points out, globally there is a $366B plus leadership industry forensically trawling over, “what leaders know and have learned, their habits, behaviours and practices, their handling of failure, challenges, decisions, and their communication skills etc”

At nXus People we have seen the unhelpful impact of an inordinate focus on leadership, without sufficient attention to the teams whose members collectively form the web of collaboration, which ultimately gets things done.

Effective teaming has never been more important to business success than it is in today’s knowledge-rich, complex and dynamic work environments. The more complex the endeavour, the higher our dependence on each other for success. Key interdependencies within and across teams are inescapable, and, if not effectively managed, one of the greatest risk points to strategic, operational and program delivery success.

In the right measure, at the right time, and in the right place, inclusive leaders can enable effective teaming. But leadership is more a baseline hygiene factor than the primary driver it is so often held up to be. No amount of individual leadership is enough to ensure critical interdependencies are working well and, if overplayed, misplaced attempts to lead can quickly create unhelpful barriers between those in leader roles and everybody else, required to get the job done.

The most critical factor in successfully navigating the complexities of today’s business environment is the ability of people to work together effectively. That requires focus squarely on teaming, of which leadership will be one of a number of important elements. There is no place for want-to-be pharaohs and zombie leadership ideas in this mix.

The nXus People Teaming approach combines contemporary research with decades of practical experience. It has been specifically designed to help establish, maintain or regain superior team or inter-team collaboration and performance, in complex, dynamic, interdependent teaming environments.

It helps teams and ecosystems of teams to;

  • Create clarity of purpose for all team members,
  • Develop behavioural skills required to team, manage differences and collaborate effectively,
  • Build the ability to learn and adapt from execution,
  • Boost resilience to maintain focus through unexpected changes, challenges and opportunities,
  • Consistently deliver against targeted performance outcomes.