Every age has its leadership myths. Thousands of years ago, the ability to lead was thought to be conferred by the gods. In the 1840s, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle created his “Great Man Theory,” which held that leaders have special powers and a special place in society – and that the rest of us have a special obligation to defer to them.
Here are nine myths that leaders tell themselves today – and what they should be saying instead.
1. I am a leader because I have been a leader before.
This is a blanket myth about the primacy of experience – that the only people capable of leadership are those who have done it before. However, experience is valuable only when one learns from it, with humility and maturity, by recognizing that each company, team, colleague and situation is different. Many, many leaders are unable to forget the rote experiences of their pasts, and act on auto-pilot.
Ask yourself: How can you learn which experiences to forget?
2. I am so busy/important/able-to-focus-on-many-things-at-once that I often multi-task.
Your main “task” as a leader is to enable others to get things done. Checking your email during an important conversation with a direct report does not do this. Leadership demands that you be fully present, yet too many leaders are distracted during key discussions, decisions, and developments. How do you remain present while leading?
3. I don’t have time to develop my leadership.
Really? At what point will you be less busy? What is the cost if your leadership skills cannot stay slightly ahead of your company?
4. Leaders are born, not made. I don’t think leadership can be learned.
While not everyone is capable of being a leader, or willing to make the required tradeoffs, leadership is an “observable, learnable set of practices,” according to “The Leadership Challenge,” by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. “The belief that leadership can’t be learned is a powerful deterrent to leadership development,” they write. How do you learn about your leadership?
5. My people tell me the truth about what’s going on in the organization.
Perhaps they do. However, given the nature of power and authority, it is naïve to believe your people will bring you the truth easily, consistently, and without bias – unless you help them by actively seeking this kind of communication without punishing them for the content. How do you encourage others to bring you bad news?
6. As a leader, I must always be "on."
While it is true that leaders are physically scrutinized more than non-leaders, it is a myth that a leader must actively “project” leadership at all times. When a leader feels obliged to constantly “perform,” there is little room left over for authenticity, reflection, and mistakes. Sometimes the most appropriate approach is to turn leadership “off” so that others may step up to the challenge. How does your leadership style create space for others to lead?
7. I started the company/organization/team/office; therefore, I have the right to lead it.
Being present at the start of something entitles you to say, “I was here at the beginning.” Remaining in charge over time, legitimately, requires a continued demonstration of worthiness. Founders need to put the interests of the group above their personal interests. Sometimes this comes only with conscious effort. Tenure means tenure, not leadership. To avoid this myth, ask yourself, “How do I continually earn the right to lead what I started?”
8. I have to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, lead by example, etc.
This is true – as long as you are engaged in the right activities. Often this myth motivates leaders to work on non-leaderships activities and to focus on problems that should rightly be left to others. “Leading by example” must be demonstrated with leadership tasks (decisions, priorities, accountabilities, etc.) Are you leading with your own work, or the work of others?
9. Leaders are fearless
Nonsense. Fear is natural and necessary, and cannot be eliminated. Consider the perspective of writer David Whyte: Fears need to be identified so that we “are not blinded when we face an unknown.” We do not have to overcome our fears; we need to know what we are afraid of. This requires courage, a word that originally means heart. To be courageous, therefore, means to be heartfelt.
Whyte is correct. Ask yourself, “What fills me wholeheartedly?”
The answer you find will be the core of your leadership – not some myth.