ESPECIALLY IN A CONTENTIOUS POLITICAL CYCLE, the concept of “leadership” is endlessly debated and redefined. The criteria for what makes a leader—and more specifically, a good leader—are constantly analyzed in the national news, in the business world and increasingly, in the classroom. Over the past four decades, a booming “leadership industry” in the U.S. has generated billions of dollars in revenue related to leadership workshops, seminars, books, conferences and other materials and events focused on leadership development. But this hyper-focus on leadership may be detrimental instead of helpful.

In an essay published in the July 2016 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and SciencesBarbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, argues that the “leadership industry’s” focus on single individuals has hampered its ability to improve the human condition. The title of Kellerman’s essay, “Leadership—It’s a System, Not a Person!,” sums up both her main thrust and her frustration with the industry’s constant elevation of single leaders at the expense of other important facets of leadership.

Kellerman provides a brief overview of the leadership industry and its basic assumption that “becoming a leader means that you are becoming something good.” She takes issue with this assumption, citing thinkers from Plato to Nelson Mandela who have warned of the pitfalls of too much power. Kellerman then lays out the three components of a leadership system: the leader, his or her followers, and vitally, the context within which leaders, followers and their movements are situated.

“We assume the overweening importance of leaders, even when this assumption is demonstrably false,” Kellerman writes. She asserts that followers have as much—in some cases, more—impact on their systems than leaders, saying, “The one is wholly dependent on and irrevocably tied to the other, which is why thinking about leadership without thinking about followership is a fool’s errand.”

Kellerman also makes a strong argument for context, writing, “I have come to consider context integral to the leadership system. It is essential to understanding how, when, and why leadership does, or does not, take place.” Using former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a case study, Kellerman examines the role of context not only in determining a leader’s effectiveness, but also in the political, economic and social outcomes of certain leaders’ actions.

Kellerman concludes her article by calling for a rigorous rethinking of leadership theory and practice by adopting a more systemic perspective. “Our efforts at leadership education, training and development are miserably inadequate,” she says. “Getting leadership right—or, at least, a lot more right than what we do now—would go a long way toward addressing the problem.” 

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