Zombie leadership: What is it, and how does it harm workplaces?
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Outdated leadership perceptions can cause workplace harm, UQ study finds

Outdated leadership perceptions can cause workplace harm, UQ study finds

by Freya Lucas

February 12, 2024

Outdated perceptions of leadership persist across society despite being repeatedly debunked, research from the University of Queensland (UQ) has found, and these perceptions can be “poisonous for organisations and society.”


Professor Alex Haslam from UQ’s School of Psychology led research into ideas about leadership which are still popular despite being harmful for individuals, groups, and organisations.


“It’s known as ‘zombie leadership’ because despite being demonstrably false, these claims refuse to die,” Professor Haslam said.


One example of ‘zombie leadership’ is that leadership is exclusive to people with special qualities, and that leaders are set apart from the masses by having these leadership qualities. 


“Zombie leadership also considers authority as only involving leaders,” the professor added.


“But leadership can never be a solo process because it’s always grounded in relationships and connections between leaders and those they influence.”


Other problematic examples include the idea that all leadership is the same, that good leadership is easily recognised, that people can’t cope without leaders and that leadership is always good.


Because these traits, qualities and attributes flatter and appeal to both leaders and the anxieties of ‘ordinary people’ who exist in a world which is seemingly beyond their control, which is comforted by the presence of someone else being in charge. 


“Zombie leadership is poisonous for organisations and society,” Professor Haslam said.


“If leadership is considered a special skill limited to special people, it signals it as an elite and exclusive activity, and helps to justify inequalities of esteem, recognition, and reward.”


“This creates problems not only for organisations, but for leaders themselves — because it fuels narcissism and failure to appreciate and capitalise on the potential of others.”


To combat zombie leadership, the researchers proposed a variety of strategies, including understanding what zombie leadership is so that they can recognise it when they come across it. 


“Understanding leadership as a group process can also help leaders be more inclusive,” the professor said.


“And then championing an approach which sees leadership as a process everyone can contribute to will make groups more successful.”


“It’s time to work together to stamp out zombie leadership, because it has persisted for far too long.”


The research paper is published in The Leadership Quarterly.

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button