“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
- Peter Drucker
Leadership, although largely talked about, has been described as one of the least understood concepts across all cultures and civilizations. Over the years, many researchers have stressed the prevalence of this misunderstanding, stating that the existence of several flawed assumptions, or myths, concerning leadership often interferes with individuals’ conceptions of what leadership is all about. Here are my top ten myths about leadership. Feel free to add your own.
Myth 1: Leaders are egotistical.
No, not necessarily. Real leaders don’t need to lead 100 percent of the time. They are able to contribute and accept the leadership of others. Not only that; they know the power of relationships, respect, communication, and humility—all key elements in being a successful leader. These are not egoistical attributes.
Myth 2: Leadership is a rare ability.
Given the fact that there are leaders everywhere, it’s not as rare an ability as one might think. Without leaders inspiring people to accomplish common goals, little would actually get done in this world. On most teams, every person who participates acts as a leader on occasion within her work group, company, industry, or community, in their own area of expertise whether or not she is acknowledged as such.
Myth 3: The person with the highest title is the leader.
Well, that depends on your definition of leadership. If you accept that a large part of leadership is in one’s ability to influence his own response to situations, that person can be in any role and any position to do that. It’s not the sole reserve of the senior management team.
Real leaders are acknowledged by their peers, supervisors, and subordinates. It’s not a matter of one’s position within an organization. It’s a matter of who has the best skills, knowledge, and resources to enable the team to achieve a particular shared goal.
Myth 4: Leaders only give orders.
While a leader may occasionally have to give an order or make a decision in a vacuum, the best leaders inspire rather than order. They do this by building relationships, a process that allows them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the contributors in their organization. Then they use this knowledge to position all contributors in a way that allows them to best succeed so that the group, as a whole, reaches its goal.
In Western cultures, it is generally assumed that group leaders make all the difference when it comes to group influence and overall goal attainment. Although common, this romanticized view of leadership ignores the existence of many other factors that influence group dynamics. For example, group cohesion, culture, communication patterns among members, individual personality traits, group context, and the nature or orientation of the work, as well as behavioral norms and established standards, all influence group functionality in varying capacities. For this reason, it is unwarranted to assume that all leaders are in complete control of their given group’s achievements.
“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Good leaders gain followers out of respect and their ability to cause people to work toward a particular goal—and the greater that goal, the more inspiring it is. Leadership is about the future, not the past. People follow because they can relate to the vision or goal personalized by the leader. A good leader helps people become better than they are. A good leader creates a work environment that attracts, keeps, and motivates its workforce.
Myth 5: Leaders are extroverts.
Leaders aren’t all extroverts. There are actually highly successful leaders who are introverts. Half of the leaders whom I’ve ever known (including my most recent boss, the successful founder and leader of a two hundred and seventy million dollar corporation) are introverts. The ability to communicate well with a wide variety of people and to be comfortable addressing groups is part of leadership, but many leaders have had to dig deep to discover these abilities within themselves. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Hilary Clinton—just three of the most celebrated leaders of the twenty-first century—are all chronic introverts. And it hasn’t stopped them one iota!
Myth 6: Leaders command a following.
Although leadership is certainly a form of power, it is not demarcated by power over people; rather, it is a power with people and one that exists as a reciprocal relationship between a leader and his followers. Contrary to popular belief, the use of manipulation, coercion, or domination to influence others is not a requirement for leadership. In actuality, individuals who seek group consent and strive to act in the best interests of others have the potential to become exceptionally effective leaders (e.g., class president, court judge).
Real leaders recognize that people aren’t waiting eagerly for their next command. There are times when project plans conflict with other events; key people who might need to participate might not be able to; and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it, even as a leader.
Myth 7: Followers exist to support a leader.
The best form of leadership is servant leadership, a term often attributed to Robert K. Greenleaf, who is considered the founder of the servant leadership movement. Servant leaders contribute to the well-being of an organization by striving to meet other people’s needs. The accomplishments of a team of inspired contributors will always outstrip the accomplishments of teams that are not personally invested in either the goal or their commitment to a leader. When leaders focus on serving the members of their team, treating them as individuals rather than a faceless group, relationships form that are based on loyalty, trust, and respect. It’s those relationships that inspire people to “go the extra mile” when a project gets tough because their hearts are invested in it, not just their heads.
Myth 8: Leaders are chosen by other people.
The common perception is that leaders are leaders only because other people chose them to be. But in fact, leaders have to first acknowledge the desire to lead. If you don’t put yourself out there as a prospective leader, people aren’t just going to appoint you as one. Once you step out and offer yourself, people will either confirm or deny your leadership. People don’t choose leaders; they acknowledge them.
In fact, there is a school of thought that says leaders are chosen because they convey a message that people believe in and support. Overall, my experience is that others decide if you are a good leader based on their experience of you, but typically leaders are self-appointed. Only you can really decide if you want to be a leader or not.
Myth 9: Leaders are born.
All leaders are born into this world, but they are not necessarily born as leaders. We’re all born. What we do with what we have before we die is up to us. According to some, leadership is determined by distinctive characteristics present at birth (e.g., extraversion, intelligence, ingenuity). However, it is important to note that leadership also develops through hard work and careful observation. Thus, effective leadership can result from nature (i.e., innate talents) as well as nurture (i.e., acquired skills).
Few of us remain the person we were when we were born. We are shaped by our surroundings and nurtured by those who raise us. All behavior is learned, including leadership behavior.
Myth 10: All groups have a designated leader.
Despite preconceived notions, not all groups need a designated leader. Groups that are primarily composed of collaborative individuals, are limited in size, are free from stressful decision making, or that exist only for a short period of time (e.g., project teams, casual sporting teams) often undergo a diffusion of responsibility, with leadership tasks and roles being shared among members.
Again, this depends on your definition of leadership. If you believe leadership is the art of bringing out the best in others, why restrict that to work? What about leadership in your relationships with your significant other, your children, and your friends? Leadership is influence, and we exert influence all the time on the people with whom we interact. Good leaders do that well to achieve mutually beneficial results.
"It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."
- Douglas Adams
How many leadership myths have I missed? Many I'm sure but I'd love to know what you think.