Five Leadership Myths and How They’ll Trip You Up

'Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating.' ~ Simon SinekClick To Tweet

Leadership myths emerge because most of us experience ‘leadership’ for the first time in the workplace.

We may have been ‘experiencing’ leadership all our lives – our parents, our teachers, our sports team captains… but until someone puts a label on it, we don’t know quite what it is.

Leadership Myths

Consequently, our view of leadership was informed by the qualities and characteristics of those first ‘leaders’ who bore the title… our first managers, team leaders and corporate chief executives.

So we can be forgiven for having a slightly disjointed view of what leadership is.

In this article we’ll explore five of the most common leadership myths, and how they can trip you up if you aren’t careful.

Leadership Myth #1: Leadership is a Position

'Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It's about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire team-mates and customers.' ~ Robin S. SharmaClick To Tweet

The first of our leadership myths is that you become a leader by being appointed to a management position.

Leadership Myths

This simply isn’t true. Leadership is not a hat you take on or off depending on what you are doing on a given day.

In fact leadership and management are only loosely correlated. There are plenty of managers with little or no leadership qualities, and plenty of leaders who aren’t in management positions.

How does this leadership myth trip people up?

Leadership is a complex suite of interwoven character traits (not all of them are essential – it’s about the combinations). These character traits are learnable, but don’t fundamentally change when you move from not being in a management position to being in a management position. Yet time and time again I see managers change the way they behave because they perceive they are expected to ‘act differently’ now they’re a manager.

Things like decency, respect, integrity, optimism, personal responsibility, and resilience apply at all times, but may be especially important for managers (who have some authority and power granted to them by their position). Yet I see managers who become aloof, disrespectful, authoritarian and arrogant when they get promoted. This destroys trust and engagement, and can kill your management career dead in its tracks.

'Leadership is a choice, not a position.' ~ Stephen CoveyClick To Tweet

Leadership Truth

Leadership is something you can do in any role – or even not in paid employment at all.

Leadership Myths

It is how you are, not what you are paid to do.

Leadership Myth #2: Leadership is about Power

'The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.' ~ Ken BlanchardClick To Tweet

The second of our leadership myths is that leadership is about power – getting it, using it, wielding it…

Leadership Myths

Machiavelli might have agreed… if this was the sixteenth century. But it isn’t. So let’s bust this myth.

How does this leadership myth trip people up?

By the time you resort to “because I said so” you’ve already lost the battle. People resent being told what to do. It’s human nature. In fact autonomy is one of the key things that makes all of us tick, especially in the workplace.

Anytime a manager exerts power over us, it’s like they’re waving a giant novelty finger in our face shouting “I know you have to come to work to pay the bills, but don’t dare think you have any value to add here – I’m in charge and I know best!”

Wow. I feel inspired!

'Leadership is about vision and responsibility, not power.' ~ Seth BerkleyClick To Tweet

Leadership Myths

Leadership Truth

Leadership is about influence not power.

You want to understand what motivates your team members and create connections between their motivations and what the organisation’s vision and strategy is, so that it becomes easy for them not only to do what you need them to do, but also to innovate and make good decisions without any guidance from you.

Leadership Myth #3: Leadership Means Having all the Answers

'No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.' ~ Andrew CarnegieClick To Tweet

Leadership Myths

The third of our leadership myths is that once you are in charge of something, you’re supposed to have all the answers. You were probably promoted from a role where you had a great deal of subject matter expertise… that’s what you were promoted for, right?


How does this leadership myth trip people up?

Leaders who think they have (or are supposed to have) all the answers end up with nobody around them but sycophants with nothing valuable to say. Because what you reinforce every time you answer a question is “my views are the only ones that count around here”. The people with the brilliant ideas will find someone else to work for. The people with no ideas will feel safe and comfortable in the knowledge that you aren’t going to call on them for the next big innovation.

Leadership Myths

Besides this, you’ll be exhausted and stressed, because you have nobody to rely upon, and eventually you’ll realise the extreme advantages of surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you.

'The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.' ~ James BuchananClick To Tweet

Leadership Truth

Leadership is about having the best questions. Not the best answers.

Leadership Myth #4: Leadership is about Charisma

'The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born - that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.' ~ Warren BennisClick To Tweet

The fourth of our leadership myths is that leadership is about charisma. If this were true, then introverts should just give up, right? Socially awkward folks need not apply! Don’t like networking? Forget about it!

Yet history is littered with leaders who lacked charisma.

How does this leadership myth trip people up?

Being charismatic isn’t a problem per se. You aren’t going to be a poor leader if you are charismatic. In fact charisma is a useful trait, particularly if your job requires you to network, speak in public and so forth.

The myth here is more that you can’t lead if you aren’t charismatic… which can lead people who believe they are less charismatic to try and be something that they aren’t – to play a role that isn’t their true self.

The problem with this approach is that others can sense it – even if they can’t quite pin down what it is… And it will be interpreted as a lack of integrity – a vital leadership trait. In other words, this myth is a problem because trying to overcome a lack of charisma can create a failing in a far more vital aspect of leadership – authenticity.

'Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.' ~ Peter DruckerClick To Tweet

Leadership Truth

Leadership Myths

Leadership is about self-awareness. Work with the strengths you have rather than trying to be someone you’re not.

Leadership Myth #5: Leadership is about Status

'Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.' ~ Mwai KibakiClick To Tweet

The last of our leadership myths is that leadership means you have higher status relative to others.  And while the perks that come with senior roles can be attractive, they also carry a number of unhelpful downsides…

How does this leadership myth trip people up?

There are two main ways that this myth trips people up.

The first is that the baubles of office can lead you to become removed from the reality of the world for those around you. If you have a fancy company car, corner office, and executive washroom, you’re hardly ever going to meet your staff! How will you ever know what issues they are facing and the ways that you could be of service to them?

The second way is that it can mean your employees see you as inconsistent in your approach… one set of rules for the C-suite and another for the hoi polloi. It’s a short slippery slope from there to employees feeling like it’s ok to take advantage of the company themselves… fiddling their expense claims, ‘borrowing’ office stationary and other unsavoury practices.

'A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.' ~ Napoleon BonaparteClick To Tweet

Leadership Truth

Leadership is service, not status.

Leadership Myths

What other leadership myths can you think of? Let me know in the comments below.

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