Book review: The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman

Very disappointing; would not recommend.

And I was so optimistic about this one.

I first came across The End of Leadership in another paper I was reading. There Barbara Kellerman’s book was used as an example of the widespread scepticism of the value of the leadership training industry. Based on my own similar scepticism, as well as cynicism, this sounded like a book that would be right up my alley. I was therefore keen to hear more of this critical view of this questionable industry.

Kellerman, Barbara.

Kellerman, Barbara. “The end of leadership.” (2012).

Unfortunately I was wrong. This wasn’t the incisive critique I was expecting. Far from it. In fact, The End of Leadership was able to frustrate and depress me in a way that few books do these days.

And it was not just a case of my favourite theoretical perspective not getting a look in.

Although it is true that The End of Leadership fails to leverage the critical insights into leadership that come from the social identity approach.  But I am prepared for that these days. While take-up of the social identity approach to leadership is on the upswing, and it has the potential to be a (if not the) dominant understanding of leadership, it isn’t there yet. There is still the din of competing perspectives,[1] as well as substantial ideological edifices,[2] to be overcome. So no, when I pick up an article, chapter, or book on leadership I don’t fly off the handle every time I don’t see the social identity approach front and centre.

That being said, the approach to leadership provided by Kellerman in its place helped get me offside early on. As someone who recognises the incremental advance of knowledge and sees the value in, and even necessity of, standing on the shoulders of giants, it comes with a certain whiff of arrogance to hear someone say offhandedly that they “avoid like the plague” all the theories of leadership that have come before.[3]

This is particularly irksome when what is offered in place is vague to the point of being unintelligible,[4] or otherwise clearly useless.[5] Indeed, Kellerman’s definition of ‘follower’ is by far the most unjustifiably counterintuitive I have ever come across. Followers, we are told, include those that do not care about a particular leader, those that disengage from a leader, as well as those that would seek to oust a leader by any means necessary (all while ‘leader’ is left explicitly, and seemingly proudly, undefined).

No, the disappointment only really started to hit me as Kellerman laid out the first of the book’s two related theses: That the nature of leadership across the world is changing. More specifically, that over the last two and a half millennia the power of leaders has been diminishing and the power of followers has been increasing. Or in her words, “leadership has a long history and clear trajectory. More than anything else it is about the devolution of power – from those up the top to those down below.”[6]

Why is this disappointing? It’s disappointing because despite six chapters on the topic this grand claim essentially goes unsubstantiated.

Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, and in this instance the bare minimum would be a systematic investigation into the shifting sources of social power across the period. What we get instead is a short list of old institutions, historic figures, and classic philosophies presented as evidence of ancient power at the top, followed by an only slightly longer list of recent revolutions, contemporary cynicisms, and topical social movements as evidence of modern power at the bottom. Given that a close look at any particular event in history sees the processes of leadership, authority, and coercion seemingly operating just as they do now, this isn’t enough.

There are also too many other explanations. For one, an impression of decreasing social stability could easily be generated by our tendency to approach history as the story of the winners, both in terms of individuals (e.g. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan) and institutions (e.g. the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty). Yet for every great conqueror and enduring empire there are innumerable agitations, mutinies, rebellions, and revolutions. The fact that time and distance has made such events less relevant to us, or that the victors have often whitewashed them from history altogether, doesn’t give us leave to presume they never happened.

Or turning to the present, Kellerman does nothing to reassure us that she isn’t suffering from the common inability to recognize new and emerging sources of social power. For example, our attention is drawn to recent disaffection with political leaders, distrust of the executive class, and the current fight for freedoms in such countries as Russia and China; the argument being that people are not as deferential and pliable as they used to be. What is missing, however, is the examination of the sources of leadership and authority that may have sprung up in place of those now waning establishments. Personally, in the absence of that analysis and in light of the massive sway and impact that antiestablishment icons still appear to have (Russel Brand is a flamboyant, but nonetheless useful, fresh example), I am not sold that these instances of targeted apathy and disdain indicate that we are entering an age of generalized anarchy. Much like those for whom a changing society looks like the breakdown of society, Kellerman might just be out of the loop when it comes to the new social powers.[7]

So yes, this first thesis was very disappointing, even infuriating at times. But it wasn’t depressing.

No, what’s depressing is my suspicion that Kellerman doesn’t actually believe this narrative herself. Not only is the argument that social power is increasingly dispersed so obviously thin, it is also just too perfect for setting up what I think is the great con of the book.

You see, this book isn’t a critique of the leadership industry at all.

Yes, The End of Leadership dolls out the usual admonishments for not having a coherent message, not demonstrating usefulness, and for generally promising more than can be delivered, but these pale in comparison to the major critique and second thesis of the book. That is, that the leadership industry hasn’t yet found its place as part of this global and inexorable shift toward follower empowerment.

Here lies the trick. Kellerman’s “penetrating critique”[8] is actually the grandest of compliments. The End of Leadership is no honest look at the inept and parasitic aspects of a tarnished industry. It is instead the implicit story of the great potential for leadership academics, consultants, and coaches to be the ultimate guides on this journey toward the new social order:

We need to consider new forms of engagement to preclude government from promising more than in can deliver, and business from ignoring issues as insidious as unemployment and gross income inequality. We need to develop a different model for national collaboration to forestall dysfunction, the hyperpartisanship that prevents us from even beginning to address the most intractable of our collective problems. And finally, we need to develop a higher level of contextual intelligence to practice and well as preach international cooperation.[9]

Wow.

Sadly, it seems that in the context of an industry infamous for praying on the egos of CEOs, executives, and politicians, Kellerman has found a new audience for calculated flattery; my bet is that The End of Leadership has ruffled few feathers and made Kellerman many friends.

That’s when it got depressing.

The End of Leadership? Maybe just the end of scholarship.

The End of Leadership? Maybe just the end of scholarship.


[1] Storey, J. (2004). Signs of change:’damned rascals’ and beyond. In J. Storey (Ed.), Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends (pp. 3-10). Abingdon: Routledge.

[2] Turner, J. C., & Haslam, A. S. (2001). Social Identity, Organisations, and Leadership. In M. E. Turner (Ed.), Groups at Work: Theory and Research (pp. 25-65). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

[3] P. xxi

[4] The ambiguities present in Kellerman’s “power, authority, and influence” taxonomy are striking. Fortunately for her, the problems with this can be avoided by only ever looking at the three combined as a single entity, which she does for the entire remainder of the book.

[5] This: “leadership development implies developing good leaders, and that good leaders are both ethical and effective”, means nothing without some grounding on what is ‘ethical’, ‘effective’, and a ‘leader’.

[6] P. 5.

[7] Along these lines, chapter two could easily have opened with “kids these days…”

[8] As we are told by one reviewer on the dust jacket.

[9] P. 199

2 responses to “Book review: The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman

  1. Hi guys,

    A great review. I think you’re spot on. There are a couple of other similar books, I could point you too though — lots of tinkling brass (and some fair points of criticism), but little by way of real alternative.

    Bye for now Alex

    Alex Haslam School of Psychology University of Queensland

    • Thanks Alex,
      Your feedback is always appreciated.
      Although, it was in one of your manuscripts that The End of Leadership came up. I therefore now hold the friendliest of grudges against you.
      Cheers
      Andrew

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