Leaders Can’t Be Coached or Bought, and Four Other Takedowns of the “Leadership Industrial Complex”

Are you leadership material? Well, what about your best friend? And the shy barista at the coffee shop down the street? And the pushy personal trainer at your local gym? These days, the message from nearly everybody is that anyone can— and should — be a leader, argues Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatry professor, researcher, and author at Stanford University.

In his latest book, A Leader’s Destiny: Why Psychology, Personality, and Character Make All the Difference, Aboujaoude tracks the rise of the leadership industrial complex. That includes programs like the Harvard Business School Executive Education, which prepares you for “challenges ahead” regardless of your “role or career stage.” “What this communicates is that leadership training is universally relevant, universally useful, and universally doable,” writes Aboujaoude. “There are no traditional prerequisites like grades, majors, prior courses, and so on, to worry about, either.” 

While this democratization of leadership may seem like a positive development, it is not, according to Aboujaoude. He makes a forceful case that the proliferation of leadership courses has helped reduce leadership to a commodity, despite the fact that leadership cannot necessarily be taught or bought. Below, he explains why you should be skeptical of this burgeoning industry. 

  1. Leadership is a booming business.

In this new era, leadership training is available to all — for a hefty price. Harvard’s Program for Leadership Development costs $52,000 for four modules (and an additional $27,000 for the optional, two-week module that allows you to claim alumni status for Harvard Business School). Meanwhile, the University of Pennslyvania’s business school offers a Global C-Suite program: nine months of largely self-paced learning designed to help you “plan and execute global strategy,” “develop new approaches for global team building,” and “focus on the demands of emerging markets.” It costs $20,000. 

These programs are hardly unique. In fact, the leadership industry has experienced year-after-year growth in recent years, independent of economic trends and conditions, and it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors within the $357 billion learning and development market. 

  1. We’re all part of a culture-wide obsession with leadership.

It isn’t just Harvard and Penn pushing the gospel of leadership. It’s everywhere: from leadership development bootcamps at work, to “Leadership Studies” minors at colleges, to daycare centers named “Lil’ Leaders,” to inflated titles like “chief pastry officer.” 

Searching for “leadership book” on Amazon nets over 60,000 entries, including 41 Leadership Tips for Teenagers and roughly 10,000 other guides just for adolescents. Meanwhile, searching for “leadership” on PubMed retrieves over 80,000 results (compared to just 60,000 a few years ago). 

The result of all this leadership-mania, Aboujaoude explains, is a collective sense of inferiority. “As a psychiatrist, I have seen more than my share of smart, talented, and passionate individuals succumb to dangerous self-blame when they can’t land a leadership title or their ‘leadership development’ fails to elevate them.” Even worse, leadership coaches can veer into territory they’re not trained for. 

  1. The work of leadership coaches often comes dangerously close to therapy.

Especially today, the line between life and work is exceptionally blurry, so leadership coaches may investigate the former to better understand the latter. This is fraught territory. These professionals often have no training in psychology or mental health and no licensing or supervision requirements. And even if they never claim to be practicing therapy, many are increasingly working in highly sensitive and personal areas, including overall wellness, relationship dynamics, grief, loss, adjustment, life transitions, and specific psychopathologies like anxiety and ADHD.

While these coaches may be well-intentioned, “therapy by any other name” is dangerous, says Aboujaoude. Studies show that 25 to 50% of recipients of coaching meet criteria for significant mental health issues, meaning they likely need help from legitimate experts. “A better choice for improving well-being, broadly defined, than a coach with no background in psychology” he writes, “is almost always a professional counselor with specific training in personality structure, drives, and motivations.” 

  1. Leadership is not a reliably teachable discipline. 

While leadership coaching may try to use the language of science, the actual evidence is lacking, says Aboujaoude. One example is “mirror neurons,” the idea that our brain cells fire when we watch someone take an action in the same way as if we took that action ourselves. If you can learn to activate someone’s mirror neurons, leadership coaching claims, you can be enormously persuasive. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t appear that this is possible. “Much of the mirroring we do is unconscious and unintentional and happens outside our control and with people we are close with,”says Aboujaoude, i.e. good friends who use the same words and phrases, spouses who finish each other’s sentences, and toddlers who copy their older siblings. 

It’s just not practical to distill complex environments, unique situations, and disparate personalities into a few easy-to-remember phrases, argues Aboujaoude. “To a large degree, great leaders are born, or happen, with the help of innate temperament, character, talent, opportunity, timing, and circumstance, in ways that we do not fully understand and can certainly not completely control.” 

  1. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader — and that’s okay. 

In its advertising, the leadership industrial complex offers reassurance that, no matter your affect and disposition, there’s a leadership type for you: transformational, disruptive, tipping point, transactional, situational, and visionary, just to name a few (of the many). But the reality is that leadership is more of an art than a science. 

To be an effective leader, you must have the right personality for it: namely, adjustable, social, ambitious and curious. In fact, 53% of the variability in leadership emergence can be explained by these factors (for comparison, 5% of the variability is explained by a high IQ). However, these parts of ourselves aren’t particularly malleable. 

Even if we’re taught how to change our leadership style on the fly, it’s unlikely that we can actually follow through. As Aboujaoude writes, “That personality can be creatively remolded like playdough and its components ‘cycled through’ or ‘jumped-between’ as needed would come as news to most psychology experts.” Indeed, studies have estimated leadership to be up to 60% heritable, largely because the traits that shape it, including personality and intelligence, are themselves often heritable.

That isn’t cause for despair, says Aboujaoude. “Leaders have sucked up too much oxygen,” he writes. “It is time to put followers front and center. A healthy leadership culture starts with appreciating followers.”