Dec 13, 2022 4 min read

Barbara Kellerman on the Blindspots of Leadership Courses and Programs

Mistaken assumptions in leadership training

The leadership industry and its proponents (including yours truly) can almost come across as religious fanatics and preachers spreading the good word. You will often hear terms like "good/great leaders" which have a moral undertone to them.

Many of them draw clear lines between concepts that are often inseparable in practice. For eg leaders vs managers — leaders as the ones with the vision while managers are focused on maximizing efficiency and execution. Of course, reality is not as neatly separated.

It's rare for someone with deep knowledge in any industry, to have the ability to not just see blindspots clearly but to speak out about them. Barbara Kellerman at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Leadership is that rare exception.

In The End of Leadership she highlights some fundamental blindspots that the leadership industry and as an extension organizations suffer in the area of leadership development.

The reality of leadership training

That notwithstanding the enormous sums of money and time that have been poured into trying to teach people how to lead, over its roughly forty-year history the leadership industry has not in any major, meaningful, measurable way improved the human condition.
Bottom line: while the leadership industry has been thriving—growing and prospering beyond anyone’s early imaginings—leaders by and large are performing poorly, worse in many ways than before, miserably disappointing in any case to those among us who once believed the experts held the keys to the kingdom.

While sounding different, they have common mistaken assumptions

The various ways to teach leadership are exciting, or intimidating, or simply confusing—take your pick. They range from courses that focus on content (what students need to know) to courses that focus on process (how change happens), to courses that focus on structure (conditions under which change takes place).
To say that each of the pedagogies is different from the others is to say the obvious...What is less obvious is how they are similar, how nearly every one is a variation on several recurring themes.

What are these mistaken assumptions?

The "good leader" as the "savior"

The leadership industry assumes that good outcomes depend on good leaders; that good leaders are good people; and that good people can be trained, or educated, or developed, to be good leaders. Thus leadership development is the equivalent of individual development. ... the leadership industry is dedicated to searching for a savior, a single individual who is the apotheosis of the “great man” or great woman...

A leader-centric view of the universe

Most of the pedagogies are leader-centric. This seems a given—after all, this is a handbook for teaching leadership. But as I have argued all along implicitly or explicitly, the model, the fundamental model based on the leader at the center, is wrong. Leader-centrism no longer explains, if it ever did, the way the world works.

Followers do not matter

Most of the pedagogies are oblivious to the fact that followers matter. Why?

First, because most of the pedagogies were developed in schools of business, where followers matter even less than they do in schools of government; second, because, as indicated, there is a lot of money to be made in developing leaders, and not a lot of money to be made in developing followers; and third, most important, because followers are still considered inconsequential. But as we we know full well by now, followers, matter. They cannot then, must not then, be excluded from the learning process.

Maximizing "good" leadership while ignoring bad leadership

Most of the pedagogies are concerned only with maximizing good leadership, as opposed to minimizing bad leadership, an imbalance that can be explained only if you follow the money. Again, there is good money to be made teaching how to be a good leader; there is no money to be made teaching how to stop or slow a bad one.

Still, a rough equivalent can be drawn to teaching medical students everything they should know about maintaining good health while teaching them nothing they should know about eliminating bad health—about how to remedy whatever it is that ails us. The first is important but so, equally, is the second.

That leadership can in fact be taught

Most of the pedagogies assume that good leadership can be taught, with little or no objective evidence to support the assumption. To be sure, the idea that leadership can be taught has been around since time immemorial. But one is struck by the fact that in the twenty-first century the leadership industry is still so bereft of empirical evidence to confirm or disconfirm whatever the pedagogical assumptions. This lack of hard evidence leaves unanswered the question of how exactly leader teachers should decide what exactly to teach leader learners.

Forgetting that effective leadership is contextual

Most of the pedagogies have a constrained rather than expansive conception of context. To be sure, references to context are made in several places... But in part because of the way leader learning is structured—invariably the instruction is relatively short in duration and usually the presumption is one size fits all—context is usually treated hastily and superficially rather than over time and in depth.

Questions to consider

When taking your next leadership course or designing a leadership development program, consider the following:

  • Does it emphasize the role of the leader over everything else?
  • Is there enough focus and emphasis on the role of followers and how they influence leadership success?
  • Does it have any emphasis on minimizing bad leadership? This is akin to Charlie Munger's idea of being intelligent by avoiding stupidity.
  • Whatever "techniques" or "models" are being taught, are they backed by evidence and research? Is it consistent with your own real-world experience or does it exist in its own ideal bubble?
  • Is there any focus on context and its role in successful leadership?
  • In your own experience, how have these assumptions limited your learning of leadership reality?
  • How disconnected was your training from the realities of day to day leading and managing?

Liked this article? You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.


  1. The End of Leadership by Barbara Kellerman.

Video: Barbara Kellerman on "The End of Leadership".

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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