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‘Liven up’ leaders: Time to inoculate against zombification. Or not?

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What is zombie leadership and what does it look like?

Stella Jones-Devitt and Liz Austen examine what we risk if we endorse this cultural status-quo, and guide us through how we might spot it so that we can choose our fate – either to conform and comply or to do something different.

There’s no bravery in zombie leadership.”

You may or may not be familiar with the term ‘zombie leadership’. Over the last few years it’s slowly been gaining traction as a humorous but pointed way to highlight a serious epidemic in higher education – that of the ‘status quo leadership’. Leadership that favours compliance, bureaucracy and torpor; that creates workforces capable of doing routinised work reliably.

These characteristics are the opposite to what we might call for in times of extreme change and volatility in higher education.

There’s no bravery in zombie leadership. No distinctiveness or narrative that energises people toward common goals. The goals are pre-set, the workforce is there to supply the end result, and there’s no deviation from this.

Whilst interest in this term has increased, so has the research* behind it, leading to assertions that this type of leadership is alive (or at least, undead). It even has a hashtag (#zombiesinhe). We’ve written about it elsewhere, suggesting that zombie leadership is alive, and what this might look like if we were to apply metrics to it.

Ultimately, in its extreme this type of leadership is the antithesis of creativity and authenticity.”

Ultimately, in its extreme this type of leadership is the antithesis of creativity and authenticity. There are no stories in this zombie world, no opportunities to contribute to, or shape the narrative, of your work or that of your institution.

If higher education were to fully embody this, we would see only the same solutions attached to the same problems, over and over. Relevance of our universities to our changing world would diminish. So too, our ability to find radical solutions to the world’s problems. We risk losing the richness of humanity: the stories of students, our colleagues, peers and the wider world that inspire us to do more, be more.  

Warning: what does zombie leadership look like?

If we are to be wary of this type of leadership, we ought to know how to spot this. This is a question we have debated for some time and most recently put to our colleagues at an international conference, ‘Theorizing Zombiism’. Zombie leadership was noted as prevalent within their lived experiences. 

First, what organisational conditions and structures allow zombie leadership to thrive?

  • Reward for compliance with no ability to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy
  • Metrics and KPIs are sovereign
  • No creativity, only conformity
  • People are chained to corporate ideals, bureaucracy and to their desk
  • People work either in complete isolation or in an organisation where homogeneity is favoured and constructed
  • Rewards focused on developing behaviours focussed on ends always justifying the means
  • Prioritising the need of the institution above all else

In its extreme, an organisation like this favours a lack of purpose beyond achieving predefined measures of success.”

These characteristics make for pessimistic reading. In its extreme, an organisation like this favours a lack of purpose beyond achieving predefined measures of success. It thrives on self-regulating conformity, and so loses the ability to discover creative, game-changing ideas that are relevant and meaningful to the people who work within the university, and society at large.

If these are the indicators of organisational zombie leadership, what does this look like in individuals?

We put to our colleagues during the conference, and these were some of the attributes we agreed on:

  • Limited, tunnelled vision focussing only upon targets and measures
  • Needs to be led
  • Boxed-in, concentrated thinking, with little transformative function for self or others
  • Limited ability to speak, often only set in an expression that prohibits offering opinion
  • Rigid in stance, but lacking a backbone

Similar to depictions in media, there was a polarised view on whether the zombie leader shuffles in a routinised manner, or jumps haphazardly from one objective to the next.

Extreme context: extreme leadership?

In the context of the Augur review, vox populism, greater regulation, financial insecurity, Brexit and a general feeling that the sky could fall in at any time on the academy, this has given senior leaders in higher education the perfect climate in which to act and evolve into the zombie leaders described here. In essence, this gives a mandate for survival tactics.

However, there is hope. Recent research by Buchanan and Hällgren (2018), suggests that there’s a place for focused leadership to work alongside evolved, self-organised networks could help navigate the storms ahead.

Will senior leaders be brave enough avoid this chain of events?”

When all’s said and done, will senior leaders be brave enough avoid this chain of events, to do something different with their leadership, whilst we tussle with ever looming change?

The choice is yours, whilst you still have it.

*Note Alf Rehn’s (2009) provocations concerning building a productive zombie workforce in which the so-called pulse-centric organisation is abandoned, reconstructed dispassionately as a zombie labour force, capable of doing routinised work reliably. Consider Whelan et al’s (2013) book Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education, in which global case studies of zombie academia are presented to illustrate that increasingly corporate infrastructures are creating a crisis in higher education best understood through the language of zombie culture.


By Professor Stella Jones-Devitt and Dr Liz Austen

Professor Stella Jones-Devitt is Director of Learning and Teaching at Staffordshire University, and Dr Liz Austen is a Senior Lecturer in Research, Evaluation and Student Engagement at Sheffield Hallam University.

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