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The leadership industry

Leadership is a billion-dollar American industry, and Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has spent her career in the thick of it. She has written or edited more than a dozen books on the topic, been ranked among the nation’s top leadership experts, and in 1999 cofounded the International Leadership Association.

Then, last year, Kellerman published a book, “The End of Leadership,” in which she made a startling claim: The whole field of leadership development—as well as its central premise, that leadership skills can be taught—has turned out to be a massive intellectual failure.

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“Notwithstanding the enormous sums of money and time that have been poured into trying to teach people how to lead, over its roughly 40-year history the leadership industry has not in any major, meaningful, measurable way improved the human condition,” wrote Kellerman.

The rise of the leadership industry, Kellerman points out, has coincided with an unprecedented decline in the confidence and trust Americans have for the people in charge. The gurus who peddle seminars and workshops on how to develop “leadership qualities” make plenty of money, and the culture embraces their inspiring messages, but the benefits don’t seem to translate to the real world.

“I’m growing more doubtful about this fixation on leadership with every passing day,” Kellerman said.

She also believes that leaders in general are becoming less powerful in our society. So what now? Kellerman argues it might be time for the leadership industry to start teaching people the skills they need to be good followers—including how to challenge and take on bad leaders.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail
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