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Why leadership isn’t a miracle cure for the COVID-19 crisis (and what can really help)

A psychiatrist who’s also a professor of organizational behavior observes that times of crisis usually evoke familiar images of generals or endurance athletes. Instead, he argues, “a public health crisis is not a war or a race.” Here’s what it will take.

Why leadership isn’t a miracle cure for the COVID-19 crisis (and what can really help)
[Photos: Ben Sweet/Unsplash; Designecologist/Unsplash]

If I hear more calls or congratulations for leadership in the COVID-19 crisis, I’m going to be sick.

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And so will a lot more people, who are innocent victims of what I like to call “leaderism”—an intoxication with leadership that harms us more than the ills we invoke leaders to cure.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at the science.

Shortly before the coronavirus hit, a team of scholars from Europe and the United States unveiled the findings of a daunting new study. Kevin Kniffin, Jim Detert, and Hannes Leroy were curious about the popularity of a simplistic dichotomy that suggests “leaders” are different than “managers.” Leaders ignite people’s imaginations and mobilize them with a compelling vision. They inspire. Managers worry about figures, stick to processes, and keep the lights on. They control. Those who deploy that contrast hasten to add that we need both. But nobody loves leaders and managers equally.

Through a series of surveys and experiments conducted across the Atlantic, the study showed that the distinction is far more than a familiar trope for management magazines. People surveyed believed that leadership and management are indeed different activities and that what “leaders” do is more valuable. That belief affected their attitudes and choices.

Participants in the study preferred to be regarded as a leader, rather than as a manager. The authors then presented them with a scenario in which they had to pick between two candidates to run a flailing organization that explicitly required the attributes of a typical manager. Most still chose the heart-rousing leader over the steady-handed manager, the situation be damned. That preference was even stronger when people had to decide in a hurry and feeling anxious.

Those findings provide empirical evidence for century-old psychoanalytic theories arguing that the more distressed we are, the more fanatical the leaders we choose. It is an impulse that fuels a genuine cult of leadership—leaderism—and sustains a global leadership-industrial complex. Both rest upon the belief, or more precisely the ideology, that leadership is the foundation of career success and the cure for all social ills. Without it, we are doomed.

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I have been reminded of that study every day since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Like every other crisis, it has turned the spotlight on leaders at every level, sending purveyors and consumers of leadership into overdrive. We crave and critique country leaders’ speeches and choices in public venues and in private conversations. We invoke familiar images of leadership in crisis—the general, the endurance athlete, the farsighted prophet. But a public health crisis is not a war or a race. It doesn’t even take much vision. It takes solid research, detailed organizing, and steady care. In other words, the stuff of competent and humane management.

This is not a crisis we will be led out of. It is a crisis we need to manage through, day after day.

The crisis also reveals that leaderism is not just deceiving, like a placebo cure. It can be harmful. And it harms those who promise leadership as much as it harms those who long for it.

Leaderism does harm by promoting two ideas. The first is that leadership is effective influence. Or put another way, if you get your way, possibly in style, then you are a leader and you deserve to be in charge. That only stokes narcissism. The second is that leaders disrupt institutions. That moralizes disruption, even when institutions might be worth preserving.

Leaderism is the thread that ties a U.S. president who defies science and calls for armed protests against state governors together with tech titans whose algorithms make Taylorism great again. The great persuaders and the global disrupters are caricatures of the two ideas on which leaderism rests. Both are incarnations of an ideology that enables and celebrates attention-grabbing elite revolutionaries even when their “revolutions” are ultimately antisocial. That’s when the ultimate effect of those leaders’ work disempowers people and weakens institutions, fueling anxiety that only begets calls for more leadership, in a cycle that works like a protection racket. Closing borders or launching tracking apps, the same leaders pose as saviors, rescuing us from the threats that they ignored, dismissed, or exposed people to. (Lack of preparation and organization are key features of leaderism—not personal flaws. They make real leaders more necessary.)

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Seen this way, our preference for leaders over managers is not just misguided. It is collusive. It sustains the power of leaderism and of those who benefit from the relentless promotion of leadership as a miracle cure. That power rests on diminishing and dehumanizing management, reducing it to a side enterprise, a mechanical activity that docile algorithms will do better soon.

It is time that we open our eyes to the toxicity of leaderism and to the harm it causes, and that we start putting less hope in leadership and more humanity in management. Once we do, we might realize that sound management is not just what we need most in the coming days and months. It is the only antidote to the chaos and anxiety that feed leaderism, and it is the foundation for the kind of leadership that does not need a threat to stay in charge.

Leaderism perverts leadership. It denies leaders’ responsibility to hold as well as influence people, and to strengthen, as well as disrupt, institutions. Demanding more humane management and putting less faith in leadership, then, might not just keep us safer in a health crisis. It might also bring us closer to what we need most of all and yet continues to elude us. That is, competent managers who are entrusted to lead and free us up when they do.


Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, he researches and practices leadership development. Follow him on Twitter at @gpetriglieri.

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