Many leaders operate from half-truths or outright misconceptions about leadership, often leading to major mistakes. Here are examples.
Myth 1: Leaders Are Born, Not Made
Many people believe that leaders are born, not made. We disagree. Some people may have more natural intelligence, be more outgoing, have innate speaking skills, or whatever, and these may be helpful in leadership. But leadership skills can be learned, not in the old lecture-take-notes model, but through experience, dialogue, role modeling, feedback, coaching, mentoring, and more.
Leadership is learned, not an innate trait of the gifted few.
Myth 2: Leaders Tell Others What to Do
Many workers, especially younger ones today, don’t want to be told what to do. Give them a goal and a context in which to achieve it (like some shared values to guide their behavior), and turn them loose. Respect their autonomy; check in now and then; remove roadblocks; and coach them on some difficulties. But don’t tell them what to do.
Leaders elicit the greatness in others.
Myth 3: Leaders Meet People’s Expectations
It would be nice to think leaders can always satisfy their constituents, but that is Hollywood. Leaders face reality, and not all stakeholders or followers are going to be happy all the time. Tradeoffs must be made; sometimes you sacrifice the long-term to stay alive; sometimes you tell investors to be patient while some long-term investments are made.
Leaders adjust expectations to what truly can be achieved.
Myth 4: Leaders are Rare
Leaders are all around in families, schools, small businesses, nonprofits, fire stations, and town councils. Great leadership is indeed rare, but it is because many people disempower themselves, play the victim, or wait for some superhero to come to their rescue. Like the tramps in Beckett’s play, Godot never comes. It’s up to us, each of us, here and now, to follow at times, and to lead at opportune moments.
Leaders are everywhere.
Myth 5: Leaders Take Care of All Their People
Some people want too much without putting in honest effort. They need to be challenged to step up. Some people just don’t fit an organization’s culture, or are toxic to others. They must become casualties. For those who remain, leaders, indeed, sacrifice themselves for them.
Leaders serve those on the same quest.
Myth 6: Leaders are in Control
Managers use their skills in stable environments. Leaders use their talents in the murky unknown, acknowledging control is an illusion, and having confidence in the team that, together, they will find a way through the chaos.
Leaders courageously venture with colleagues into the unknown.
Half-Truth 1: Leaders Have Followers
Yes, leaders have followers, but a more important dimension of great leadership is to unleash the leadership in others. In today’s complex world, no single leader can do it all, or has all the answers, even with loyal and committed followers.
Leaders enlist followers and unleash other leaders.
Half-Truth 2: Leaders Have Authority
Many leaders, indeed, have authority or position power. But leadership can be exercised by anyone in an organization, even those without authority. Gandhi had no position authority, nor did Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, or even Martin Luther King, Jr. In their careers, Bob and Gregg have seen great leadership from many colleagues.
Anyone can lead.
Half-Truth 3: Leaders Protect Their Power
Indeed, there are times of political turmoil when leaders must protect their power. Leadership is a contact sport, not for their faint of heart, nor those with a thin skin. But most of the time, leaders empower others, sharing their power with other leaders.
Leaders often give away their power.
Half-Truth 4: Leadership is Lonely
In a crisis, when an unpopular decision needs to be made, leadership can be lonely. Advice is taken, input solicited, but an unpopular decision can be lonely. Most of the time, however, good leaders are deeply connected with their constituents, honoring and respecting each other, constructively arguing, and forging an actionable consensus that many people execute.
Leaders are deeply connected with people.
What myths and half-truths have sabotaged leadership in your experience?
-Bob & Gregg Vanourek
Co-authors, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (2012 USA Best Book Awards finalist)