Bookcase: The End of Leadership

• By Barbara Kellerman
• Harper Business
• RRP $44.99

Like many business journalists, loosely defined, good slice of my living has come from peddling thoughts – not advice – about leaders and leadership. One way or another I’ve been reporting on, reading about, interviewing and watching so-called leaders for 40-something years.
I now confess that growing disquiet about leaders and the leadership business has me enthusiastically embracing new book by American author and leadership academic Barbara Kellerman who effectively debunks the subject upon which she has feasted.
I found Kellerman’s latest book The End of Leadership strangely liberating, smugly reassuring and both refreshingly honest and starkly obvious. The experience was rather like re-reading the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes.
If anyone has earned the right and intellectual standing to call our preoccupation with leadership load of old rope, Kellerman has. She is the James MacGregor lecturer in public leadership at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government. She is, as one critic called her, an academic leadership all-star.
Kellerman slices her subject in two. On the one hand she explains the leadership versus followership phenomenon, illuminating the transition that is taking place as leadership is supplanted and dwarfed by the emergence of follower power.
One the other, she explains that while the leadership industry has thrived, grown and prospered by many hundreds of millions of dollars year more than people like her in the game ever imagined, there is much less to the leadership industry “than meets the eye”.
She explains: “For whatever the [leadership] industry’s small, generally narrow successes, humankind writ large is suffering from crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading wisely and well, and from surfeit of mostly well-intentioned but finally false promises made by those supposed to make things better.”
Kellerman accuses the industry, of which she is leading member, of peddling the idea that great leaders can change the world. Leaders might have delivered some great things in times when followers believed them. But with the shift of power to followers – transition process she explains – leaders are not the stars they used to be.
The End of Leadership invites readers to honestly and thoughtfully consider our collective, desperate and lazy tendency to look to leaders to solve things. Most of them, in enterprise and in politics, cause more problems than they solve.
Kellerman offers no prescription for this predicament. She simply says “leadership is in danger of becoming obsolete”. That won’t suit readers who insist on happy endings so here is her elaboration: “There will always be leaders – but leadership as being more consequential than followership, leadership as learning we should pay to acquire, leadership as anything better than business as usual, leadership as solution to whatever our problems, and leadership as an agreement of which merit is component.”
The leadership industry must, she writes, end the leader-centrism that constricts conversation; transcend the situational specifics that make it so myopic; subject itself to critical analysis and reflect the object of its affection – in other words, change with the changing times.
Like the management book also reviewed on this page, here is book by writer who has sniffed the breeze and smelled the need for dramatic change.

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