The End of Leadership? End of Leadership?

Barbara Kellerman and Jim O’Toole, two leadership experts we respect, are ticked off about the failures in leadership we witness virtually every day. (See “Mad About Leadership” in Strategy+Business, June 2012). Think of all the leadership-related scandals recently:

Recent Leadership Hall of Shame
Bear Stearns
Countrywide Financial
Galleon Group
Goldman Sachs
Johnson & Johnson
Lehman Brothers
MF Global
Penn State

It’s a long list—and getting longer with a disturbing frequency. Think also of the problems and mishaps we’ve seen from Wall Street mavens, K Street lobbyists, feckless regulators, subprime companies, credit ratings agencies, and more. Atrocious.

Kellerman’s new book, The End of Leadership, takes the “leadership industry” (organizations seeking to grow leaders) to task for failures to develop leaders who avoid these blowups. Jim O’Toole echoes her outrage. Check out some doozies from their recent writing:

“For all the large sums of money invested in the leadership industry, and for all the large amounts of time spent on teaching leadership, learning leadership, and studying leadership, the metrics are mostly missing. There is scant evidence, objective evidence, to confirm that this massive, expensive, thirty-plus-year effort has paid off.”
–Barbara Kellerman (from The End of Leadership)

“If anything, most corporate in-house leadership training is an even bigger waste of time and money than what goes on in business schools.”
–James O’Toole

“As a whole the leadership industry is self-satisfied, self-perpetuating, and poorly policed.”
–Barbara Kellerman (from The End of Leadership)

It’s a sad state of affairs. There are far too many examples of poor leadership today (an indictment of leadership development programs and business schools). We need to call these leaders and their teachers, trainers, coaches, and developers to task for their dereliction.

But all is not lost. Kellerman’s snappy title notwithstanding, we remain hopeful after interviewing leaders in sixty-one organizations in eleven countries. (In the for-profit arena, we interviewed leaders at Bright Horizons, CH2M Hill, Cisco, Clif Bar, DaVita, eBay, GE, Google, Infosys, Medtronic, Midcountry Financial, Pitney Bowes, Toyota, Tyco, Vanguard, Votorantim, Xerox, Yum!,, and more. In the non-profit arena, we interviewed Ashoka, Echoing Green, Habitat for Humanity, KIPP, Mayo Clinic, Perkins School for the Blind, Share Our Strength, The SEED Foundation, and more.)

There are examples of excellent leadership at many organizations, including leaders adept at soliciting and developing the leadership of others in their enterprises and tapping into people’s deeper values and aspirations. They point the way with new “triple crown” leadership practices like “head and heart” (recruiting for, developing, and rewarding character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit as well as skills and expertise ), “steel and velvet” (getting beyond your natural leadership style, flexing between the hard and soft edges of leadership), and “stewardship” (empowering people to act and lead by the shared values, encouraging them to step outside their traditional roles and be stewards of the culture of character). Some of them are developing metrics to help them keep track of how they are doing not only in terms of performance but also in ethics and sustainability.

We should be critical of derelict leaders, ineffective leadership development programs, and business schools that fail to integrate ethics and sustainability deeply into their curricula. Thank you, Drs. Kellerman and O’Toole, for sounding the alarm.

But are we witnessing the “end of leadership”? We hope so, if it means the end of the brand of leadership that has failed us on so many levels and led to so much cynicism, damage, and scandal. Filling the vacuum can be a new brand of leadership better suited to our age. And it should have a clear and measurable standard: does it build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations? We must insist on nothing less.


Bob and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards), based on interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries. End of Leadership?

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