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6 Lessons for Improving Leaders and Leadership

How to improve leadership study and practice.

Key points

  • People focus too much on leaders and don’t give enough attention to improving the leader-follower collective.
  • Leader selection approaches are limited, with self-centered persons and males having an advantage.
  • Success is often equated with good leadership, but leaders also need to be ethical role models and do the right thing.

A few years ago, a group of leadership scholars got together to critique how leadership was studied and practiced in the world today. Some of the suggestions are outlined below.

1. Too Much Focus on the Leader. We put too much of our attention on the leader. Jim Meindl called this the “Romance of Leadership.” When good (or bad) things happen in an organization or a country, we give more credit to the leader than she or he deserves, and we tend to overlook the contributions of others.

Take, for example, the outrageous salaries that are given to CEOs, presumably due to their personal impact on the bottom line, when we know that success is the collaboration of many working together. Or, consider that U.S. presidents are blamed for a bad economy when myriad factors are at play that are completely out of the president’s control.

The Lesson: Look at the big picture. Leadership is co-constructed by leaders and team members working together. Work to overcome the tendency/bias to overattribute the outcome to the leader.

2. The Wrong People Often Get Put in Leadership Positions. We don’t do a good enough job selecting people for leadership positions. All too often, narcissistic and self-promoting individuals stand out in leader selection, and we wind up with self-serving leaders who care more about their own advancement than the team’s success.

The Lesson: Don’t be fooled by appearances. Focus on selecting leaders who can build great teams, encourage collaboration, treat followers fairly, and develop shared leadership capacity.

3. We Don’t Give Enough Attention to Encouraging Good/Ethical Leadership. Effective leadership and good leadership are not the same. Leaders who focus solely on results without considering the impact on the team and doing the right thing (such as “win at all costs” or “the ends justify the means”) can, in the long run, be incredibly damaging.

The Lesson: Give conscious attention to encouraging ethical behavior in all organizational members, but particularly holding leaders accountable for unethical actions. Most organizations have a mission statement and/or a vision statement. How about an “ethics statement,” or at least incorporating ethics as a core element of the mission?

4. Leadership Is Too Male-Centric. Although women are making advances in attaining leadership positions, there is still a strong male bias. Classic research suggests that when we think of a leader, we think of a male as well as masculine qualities (“Think Leader, Think Male”). Yet, many of the qualities that women bring to the table, such as relationship skills and greater sensitivity to ethical issues, serve them well in leadership positions.

The Lesson: Leadership experts Stefanie Johnson and Christine Lacerenza suggest that we need to first change the long-held stereotype about the strong, agentic leader and realize the importance of relationship skills in leadership. They also recommend a “blind” selection of leaders when possible, to not allow gender to seep into the evaluation of candidates.

5. Leadership Is Too Western-Centric. Most leadership theories were developed in the U.S. and Western Europe and these dominate the selection and development of leaders worldwide. Yet, cultural influences can affect leadership and followership. Moreover, biases often exist when a leader or potential leader is from a different country or culture.

The Lesson: Cultural sensitivity is a must for effective leadership. We in the West have a lot to learn from leaders and leadership in other countries.

6. We Need to Do Leadership Development Better. Leadership development tends to be focused primarily on upper-level leaders, be quite brief in time devoted, and there is little follow-up. In some instances, there is little concern about the leader’s motivation to develop and improve. In addition, leaders are often trained “in isolation” without involving the team members.

The Lesson: Take leadership development seriously. As leadership development expert David Day suggests, concern has to be given that the leader is motivated to develop, that there is enough time devoted so that actual development can occur, and that development be long-term and ongoing, incorporating both training and experiences. Moreover, Day makes the distinction between “leader development”—focused only on the leader—and “leadership development”—increasing the leadership capacity of the leader and work team. The latter approach is better, as it builds leadership capacity for the future.


Meindl, J. R. (1995). The romance of leadership as a follower-centric theory: A social constructionist approach. The leadership quarterly, 6(3), 329-341.

Riggio, R. E. (Ed.). (2018). What’s Wrong With Leadership?: Improving Leadership Research and Practice. Routledge.

Ciulla, J. B. (2019). The two cultures: The place of humanities research in leadership studies. Leadership, 15(4), 433-444.

Day, D. V., & Liu, Z. (2018). What is wrong with leadership development and what might be done about it?. In What’s Wrong with Leadership? (pp. 226-240). Routledge.

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