Leadership is hard, and what makes for a great leader is harder still to pin down. Excellent leaders vary wildly in their style and approach, and each situation calls for different tactics. Which leaves leadership newbies in a bind. If there's no set formula for leadership success, how do you learn to do your job well?

This gap between the immense curiosity about leadership and the few hard and fast rules about how to do it well has spawned an entire industry dedicated to pedaling dubious leadership "truths," Stanford business school professor and author Jeffrey Pfeffer warns in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article.

"This consuming interest in leadership and how to make it better has spawned a plethora of books, blogs, TED talks, and commentary," he writes. "Unfortunately, these materials are often wonderfully disconnected from organizational reality and, as a consequence, useless for sparking improvement."

The rest of the long article is dedicated to debunking these so-called leadership "truths." It's well worth reading in full if you've recently found yourself baffled by all the diverse and dubious advice on offer, but if you're looking for a quick-and-dirty rundown of some of the most common leadership myths, here are a few in brief:

1. To do good you need to be good.

There are a host of articles out there urging leaders to demonstrate some of humanity's most prized virtues, qualities like honesty, humility, and empathy (as you can see from the links, I've written a few of them myself.) These are indeed admirable qualities for a person to have and, in some situations, displaying them will serve you well, but both research and history suggest that great leaders aren't always paragons of unbending moral correctness.

"It is sometimes necessary to do bad things to achieve good results," insists Pfeffer. "Not surprisingly, then, some of the most successful and admired leaders--for example, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy--were above all pragmatists, willing to do what was necessary to achieve important objectives."

"Each of them (and many other renowned leaders) changed their positions on decisions and issues and behaved inconsistently. They dissembled and engaged in strategic misrepresentation, not always disclosing their full agendas and plans, in part to avoid provoking opposition. At times, they acted in ways inconsistent with their authentic feelings," he continues.

Which means that if a leadership "expert's" whole schtick is to basically tell you to be a good person, he or she isn't being honest about the difficult tradeoffs leaders face in the real world.

2. Authenticity beats politics.

Can things like transactional networking and strategic flattery feel a bit dirty? Of course they can. But that doesn't mean that, when executed will skill, they don't work.

"When executives tell me that flattery doesn't work and that people can see through strategic efforts to garner their support, I cite extensive evidence showing that we are generally quite poor at discerning deception," Pfeffer explains. Authenticity has its place, but if you think you can be a successful leader without consciously building relationships and a power base (sometimes despite your personal feelings), you're kidding yourself.

3. Consistency is key.

Actually, consistency will hobble you, claims Pfeffer, pointing to none other than "honest Abe" as an example. "Lincoln remade himself and was willing to do what situational exigencies required--all the while learning, evolving, and developing his leadership skills. Sometimes, this approach to leadership required Lincoln to make deals he was initially uncomfortable with to gain the support of legislators, notably to win passage of the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery," he writes.

While, a certain level of day-to-day predictability is probably essential to getting the best work out of your people, when it comes to longer term aims, adaptability is undervalued relative to stubbornly sticking to your vision.

What's the theme underlying all these myths? That great leadership is solely about character. There are plenty of reasons to strive to be a good person, but Pfeffer points out boosting your leadership ability isn't necessarily one of them. Learning the nuts and bolts skills of building influence and weighing tricky trade-offs is a far better approach than just assuming being upright and decent all the time will be get you where you want to go.

Are there any other common pieces of leadership wisdom that you think are absolute baloney?

Published on: Mar 30, 2018
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