Unlearning Leadership

By Jim Selman

The climate emergency. Global inequality. Biodiversity loss. Resolving these and other intractable problems calls for a breakthrough in how we think about leadership. Where to begin?


The quest for the keys to leadership has become a Holy Grail in our society. Billions of dollars are being spent annually on new ideas, models and processes in an attempt to crack the leadership code. Over the past few decades, an entire industry, replete with consultants, trainers, and coaches, has sprung up to meet the growing demand for leadership training and development. The sheer volume of available biographies, books, articles, and workshops on the subject is astounding. There are over 60,000 titles on leadership on Amazon alone, including one by me.* And yet, how much impact has this avalanche of information actually had? Do we have more leaders? More important, do we have enough of the leaders we need?

As far as I know, no one has attempted to study these questions. Most people I speak with anecdotally agree that the answers are “not much impact” and “certainly not enough of the leaders we need”. For a subject that commands so much attention and resources, why do we have such questionable results?

Peter Drucker’s answer was, “We know nothing about leadership and motivation. All we can do is write books about it.”  I disagree. I think we write so many books because we know too much about leadership. Almost everything we think and believe about leaders, leadership, and leadership development is based on assumptions and conventional wisdom that lock us into an interpretation that explains, but doesn’t allow us to generate, leadership. As comedian Will Rogers put it, “It ain’t what we know that’s the problem. It’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, they become mythological and very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate.”

E.L. Doctorow in conversation with Bill Moyers (1990)

I believe we need to “unlearn” what most of us take for granted and assume to be true about leadership.

Unlearning isn’t about invalidating or throwing away all of our existing explanations, models, and programs. It is about stopping the search for answers within a context that is constituted to give us “more of the same” without any possibility of a breakthrough.

Unlearning isn’t an answer: it’s literally the beginning of asking new questions. Questions like, “Which of our underlying assumptions and beliefs about leadership no longer make sense in today’s world?”

I propose that the following six ideas about leadership, still prevalent in many of our methodologies and practices, are the first things we should unlearn.


1. Knowledge precedes action.

Reading leadership books and attending workshops can make you knowledgable. It can even make you skillful with techniques that worked for others within some very narrowly defined, recurring parameters. But people and organizations are not ‘things’: they are constantly evolving and don’t generally follow proscribed expectations. What worked in some situations in the past won’t necessarily work in the unprecedented situations we encounter today. Leaders now have to respond, often spontaneously, to what is needed and wanted in the moment. In the beginning, they may not know what they are doing.


2. Control and authority are necessary.

Most people equate leadership with authority, as granted by a role or position. Yet coercion is the antithesis of leadership. While leaders may have authority, it is not necessary and, in most instances, only needs to be used when leadership fails.

An individual’s commitments, their personal sense of responsibility, and their connection with an audience can be sufficient. Consider how Greta Thunberg’s commitment to climate and Ghandi’s crusade to free India from the British have mobilized people into action and brought about change. These leaders generated a future that would not have happened in the absence of their leadership. They did so by initiating committed conversations in real time, conversations intended to either open new possibilities or to generate a desired outcome that would not have happened otherwise.


3. Leadership is a function of the individual.

Humanity’s almost universal belief in causality has us trying to explain leadership after the fact, trying to trace back the successful actions of someone whom history has deemed a leader in search of a set of attributes (e.g. charisma) or behaviours (e.g. talking face-to-face with frontline employees) that can be developed. This approach blinds us to seeing other possibilities.

It is easy to see why conventional wisdom is locked into the notion that individuals are the source of leadership and that a person’s actions, behaviors and attributes are what cause or motivate others to follow them. These ideas—that the individual is the source of leadership and that leaders have followers—are understandable. (Notably, there are only 267 books on Amazon with “followership” in the title.) Even Robert Greenleaf’s brilliant thesis that true leadership is in the service of those who follow is still focused on the leader.

Let’s put aside causality for a moment and consider another interpretation of reality, one in which we do not hold that everything must be a cause or an effect. From that perspective, leadership can be seen as a function of relationship: it is a social phenomena. Leadership, after all, always includes others beside the person designated as the leader. Interestingly, the most effective leadership development programs in the public/private sector and the military, uniformly grounded in situational scenarios and practice, have shown that the individual attributes of participants have little or nothing to do with the program’s effectiveness.


4. Leadership is a function of style or technique.

When attempts to explain leadership as a function of personal attributes of the leader fall short, the next default explanation is to describe what leaders are doing or their “style” on a continuum from harsh (General Patton) to soft (Mother Teresa). This leads to various theories and approaches—from having the right span of control and open office policies to trying daily meetings and a plethora of approaches to team building. No one style or technique works in all situations with all people. This seems to be the case not only across a number of different leaders, but even with one leader. Leaders will have many styles and many techniques, but they are not the source of leadership.


5. Some individuals are born to be leaders.

When our attempts to reliably codify, develop, and expand leadership fail, this default explanation essentially ends the conversation. We similarly close down inquiry by designating leaders as special, unique, naturally endowed, or any other exclusionary labels. We literally kill the possibility of inquiring into what we don’t know we don’t know about leadership. This is akin to using human nature to explain away why we haven’t been able to generate the kinds of changes in behavior that seem needed today to reverse climate change.


6. Leadership is an art.

This idea adds an air of mysterious creativity to many of the previous listed beliefs about leadership, while also attempting to settle the matter definitively and close our inquiry into the source of leadership. Once something is an art, we can stop attempting to reproduce it and simply choose to relax and appreciate it. Books on how to appreciate geniuses like Picasso and Mozart, Washington and Edison abound: only a relative few exist on how to master their artistry.

That said, thinking about leadership as an art can be a useful starting point if we choose to become an apprentice. A serious apprentice is a committed observer, someone who engages with whatever they encounter with a beginner’s mind and an openness to going beyond the limits of their prior knowledge or understanding of a subject.

All of these assumptions and beliefs might satisfy our desire to understand leadership. But they don’t give us a way to intentionally produce leadership when it’s missing.

When massive efforts to resolve a problem over long periods of time fail, we need to ask why the problem persists, rather than keep searching for the best solution to the problem. With leadership, we might want to consider that the real problem or limiting factor is a universal human condition I call “cognitive blindness”.

We are, individually and collectively, in the middle of human history. We were born into a world that already exists, a world comprised of historical interpretations and beliefs, problems and practices. Our understanding of everything, including what options we have for innovation and change, has been handed down to us from the past. Along with these historical explanations of everything comes a blindness to possibilities, a blindness to the self-referential nature of our consciousness, and a blindness to the nature of our way of being in the world.

Unlearning leadership is an opportunity to confront our cognitive blindness and, like a person who finally realizes they won’t find their lost car keys by looking only under the streetlamp, begin exploring for the keys to leadership where the light isn’t. Once we refocus our attention on learning to navigate in a world in which we are permanently blind, who knows what we’ll discover or learn or create….

*   Jim Selman. Leadership (Pearson Education Publishing, 2007). Translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish.