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Dani Bacon

Distinction Business Consulting

Organisation Development Consultant

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Are there zombies in your leadership programme?

Dani Bacon and Garin Rouch are here to help you ensure zombie notions aren’t undermining your leadership programmes.
ai generated, zombies, horror

In the ever-evolving field of leadership, it's crucial to stay ahead of outdated ideas. The term "zombie leadership” has been adopted by the authors of a recent compelling research paper. It describes the beliefs about leadership that continue to influence many leadership development programmes despite significant evidence debunking them. So why do these zombie ideas persist, and how can we ensure they don't undermine our efforts to foster effective leaders? This article explores three common zombie notions and offers actionable strategies to revitalise your leadership development activities.

Zombie notion 1: Leadership is all about the leader

One pervasive zombie notion is the myth that leadership success comes solely from focusing on the leader's personal growth.  There’s a natural inclination to centre our efforts on improving the skills, knowledge, and behaviours of leaders and while intuitive, this overlooks the fact effective leadership is deeply intertwined with the dynamics of the entire team.  Effective leadership is a team effort, requiring both leader and team development.  For example, if managers are frustrated by their team's lack of initiative, working on the manager’s ability to delegate is one strand. But to truly address the issue, we also need to develop and empower team members to take charge and be responsible.  This might involve a combination of development for individuals and a broader look at the culture they are working in.
there remains no consensus on the definitive qualities that constitute a 'great' leader

Strategies to overcome:

To overcome this zombie notion try these approaches:
  • Implement dual-focused training that enhances leader competencies while also developing and empowering team members to be open to new ways of working
  • Facilitate sessions that allow leaders and their teams to engage in open dialogue about expectations and barriers
  • Design programmes to facilitate shared experiences for leaders and their teams to foster a sense of collective responsibility

Zombie notion 2: One-size-fits-all leadership

Believing there's a universal formula for effective leadership is a zombie notion that continues to mislead many. This stems from the many attempts to identify a definitive set of qualities, traits, or behaviours that all exceptional leaders possess.  Despite extensive research and the compilation of lengthy lists, there remains no consensus on the definitive qualities that constitute a 'great' leader. In fact, the quest for such a list has only highlighted the many contradictions. The fallacy of this notion lies in its disregard for context and the unique challenges and environments in which each leader operates.  For instance, while being a disruptor or an agent for change is often celebrated as the hallmark of leadership excellence, the ability to foster support, stability, and continuity can be equally valuable, though perhaps less headline-grabbing. What constitutes effective leadership varies significantly from one scenario to another.

Strategies to overcome:

To counteract the "one-size-fits-all" myth, our leadership development programmes should:
  • Emphasise the importance of context supporting leaders to assess and respond to unique organisational challenges 
  • Personalise leadership development plans to address the diverse needs and circumstances of each leader
  • Replace the pursuit of a definitive set of traits with a broad spectrum of qualities that prepare leaders to respond and adapt to uncertainty and change
  • Support continuous learning and encourage leaders to stay informed and reflect on their experiences to evolve their leadership approach 

Zombie notion 3: Leadership is for the few 

The zombie idea that leadership is an innate ability reserved for a select few ignores the potential within all employees. This myopic view can lead organisations to channel their resources into developing a handful of perceived top leaders, overlooking the reality that leadership potential exists at every level.  There's a compelling argument to suggest that focusing development efforts exclusively on high-potential individuals may result in only marginal gains. A focus on top leaders also tends to go hand in hand with rewarding visible achievements over other vital, yet frequently undervalued, facets of leadership, such as creating a constructive working environment (you use the same phrase in the above point), uplifting the team, and prioritising active listening.  This also attributes success disproportionately to the individual leader and overshadows the team's collective efforts. It also risks making teams less effective by creating a dependency on a single figure perceived as indispensable. 
Success is seen as a team achievement

Strategies to overcome:

To move beyond this outdated belief, organisations would be well served to:
  • Broaden development efforts to include potential leaders at all levels, promoting an inclusive culture
  • Shift focus from solely high achievers to recognising and developing leadership qualities across the organisation
  • Ensure all dimensions of good leadership are recognised and rewarded and not just the visible, high-profile achievements
By understanding that effective leaders can come from any position, we create a more inclusive and empowering workplace.  Success is seen as a team achievement, reflecting the collective work of the entire group, not just one heroic leader. This change not only strengthens the unity of the organisation but also helps every employee feel like a vital part of the team's leadership and success.

Final word

The persistence of outdated "zombie ideas" in leadership is driven by multiple factors, despite evidence disproving these notions. Some parts of the leadership development industry, thriving on the sale of simple, universal leadership solutions, perpetuate these ideas for their own gain, appealing to organisations in search of quick fixes.  Similarly, individuals in high-power positions may support the myth of exclusive leadership to maintain their status and authority. To move beyond these notions in your leadership development programmes, focus on strategies tailored to your specific context and needs and adopt these three approaches:
  1. Assess the relevance of leadership concepts, ensuring they align you’re your organisational needs.
  2. Prioritise evidence-based approaches, integrating current research into programmes
  3. Critically evaluate the methodologies of leadership development providers for their evidence base and applicability
By adopting these strategies, you can steer your leadership development programmes away from outdated beliefs and towards practices that recognise the complexity and diversity of effective leadership. Interested in these writers? Read Rethinking Management Development: Broadening our approach for 2024

Author Profile Picture
Dani Bacon

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Dani Bacon
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