The killing of George Floyd, the latest in a string of African American casualties of racial injustice, has not just sparked global protests. It has mobilized leaders in businesses and universities to join their counterparts in politics to make public statements of support for the black community. Expressing outrage and dismay. Calling for justice. Renewing their commitments to fairness, diversity, and equality. We have had enough, many of those welcome statements say, and we are not doing enough. It’s hard to disagree.
As a white European management professor, far from the streets of Minneapolis but not blind to the experience of black people in America or in my countries of Italy and France, it is easy to demand and join those statements. I expect leaders in the institutions that I am part of, and work with, to take a stance, or take a knee, against systemic racism and in solidarity with those who suffer from it.
Before we offer the usual mix of heartfelt sentiments and practical solutions, however, those who are leading business or, as we often claim in academia, educating future leaders, must also admit a hard and shameful truth. The dehumanization we condemn is not just on us—it is in us, and a large part of the business of leadership itself.
A subtle dehumanization is built into the fabric of the leadership industrial complex, a sprawling global collection of outfits that promote models of “leadership” whose end goal, under an enlightened surface, is far too often just personal power, profit, or both.
We promote diversity, compassion, and paid leave not because they are good per se, but because they boost commitment, motivation, and, ultimately, the bottom line. You had better be prepared to make a business case for equality. What’s wrong with that?
Most of those efforts reinforce a view of leadership that, put bluntly, is a means to get your way, and get stuff done—in style. If you can do that, you are a leader. If you can’t, you are not. This is the hollow core of popular portraits of leadership as an individual virtue or as a set of tools that let a person bend others’ minds and move their bodies too.
Influencing others matters more than representing them. Efficiency matters more than freedom. Participation is framed as a way to get people on board, rather than to free them up.
There is a role for concern with humanity, in that portrait. A subaltern role. Our passions, our bodies, even our rest must be harnessed—now that’s a metaphor we seldom stop to think about when it comes to leading—to make us more efficient (and powerful). We must be instrumental, if only in authentic, benevolent, and, when possible, elegant ways.
Those portraits of leadership, whose relevance is too often dismissed, are consequential. They become templates we use to distinguish who is a leader and who isn’t. They animate the efforts of those who aspire to be recognized as one. Over time, models mold leaders.
The bromance of convenience between U.S. president Donald Trump and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is one recent incarnation of the leadership models we have been promoting for decades. Both are controversial leaders whose influence now extends far beyond their businesses and the business world. Their stance and tools, critics point out, incite the very discord and disfunction that end up killing people.
Both men remind us that leadership is not always good, or absent. Sometimes it’s present and harmful. The stonewalling, chaos, incompetence, and aggression that critics lament as failures of leadership are anything but. They have long been features, not flaws, of antisocial leadership. And our critiques would be more credible if we had not paved the way for it, by promoting impulsive visionaries and skillful operators who got their way and made it to the top.
Leaders are neither born nor made; they are fabricated, I wrote in the summer of 2016, reflecting on Trump’s chances of winning the most mediatic leadership contest on earth. At that time, many champions of leadership remained quiet. Few were celebrating the prospect of a fellow celebrity executive and leadership book author (yes, I know, protagonist) in the Oval Office.
Some of those silences were quiet endorsements, I argued. Others were expressions of shame for having enabled his rise. We did it every time we celebrated leaders who disrupt institutions, rendering those who strengthen those institutions invisible or casting them as public enemies. Trump has delivered on that. Four years later, as another election approaches, he remains a caricature of ruthless influence, the stuff of leadership fairy tales. This time around, however, more of those tales’ authors and protagonists are condemning his work.
While it’s a start, replacing a leader with a more appealing one at the voting booth or in the boardroom, walking out of their business or boycotting it altogether, won’t get us far enough. If we don’t protest leadership, the dehumanizing portrait of it, as forcefully as the leaders who embody it, we’ll only get more of the same. Maybe that is the point. I cannot stand for it.
As a member of the leadership industrial complex, this is not the first time that I’ve lamented the dangerous influence of our popular, and seemingly innocuous, models of leadership. It might not be the last. I am well aware that we are not just forcing those models on people. Purveyors of leadership are not that powerful. More often than not, we pander to power, and to the market.
On that note, I have just reached the point where I ought to offer some examples of leaders who are doing a little better, and practical advice to emulate them. Because that is what you, the reader of articles on leadership, expect. Or so I am often told. But is that really true? Is it you who wants reassuring solutions? Or is it I who, by prescribing them, seek absolution?
This is not the time for either. We’ve got work to do. But I do have an example of the leadership we need more of. The start of it, anyway. It’s you. If you are bothered enough to get this far into a critique of the leadership industry, you might be open to its main idea. It’s not what we are not doing that’s getting people hurt. It’s what we have been doing for too long. So what can we do?
Stop what we are doing, witness, and acknowledge the anger and pain it caused, and make space for solutions to emerge. Stop peddling prescriptions. Raise more objections. Host hard conversations. That would mean valuing freedom, protest, and dissent as much as efficiency, best practices, and uplifting stories. It could even be the start of humanizing leadership, making it less of a danger or a cure and more of a piece of work in progress.