Leader may just be one of the most misunderstood words in the English language.

And that's not just me trying to come up with a snappy opening for a blog post. There's a huge gap between how most people imagine a leader behaving and what effective leadership actually looks like, according to reams of academic research.

The myth of the heroic leader

Here's Leon Neyfakh summing up all this scholarship for The Boston Globe: "The kind of leaders we idolize may be the last people we really want in charge."

"There is a notion that there are transformational leaders who can create opportunities for change because of the quality of their leadership, essentially by getting out in front of the crowd and crying, 'follow me,'" George C. Edwards III of Texas A&M University tells Neyfakh. "In reality that rarely happens."

This gap in understanding is a huge problem for followers, of course, who rarely get the sort of support from the top that would really enable them to flourish. But it's also bad news for leaders themselves. The image of the lone hero who charges forward with the weight of the world on his (or her) shoulders, not only gets in the way of sound management practice, but also keeps many executives from getting the help them need to do their jobs well, claim several experts.


In a lengthy and fascinating piece on the subject for Psychology Today, author Ray Williams argues that today's business leaders are under extraordinary pressure due to changing tech, global competition, etc. Add to that the problem that they're also often tripped up by their own egos.

"A study by Kelly See, Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, and Naomi Rothman, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision, concluded one characteristic of powerful and successful leaders is high levels of self-confidence. Unfortunately, the researchers say, the higher the self-confidence, the less likely these leaders are open to advice and feedback," he writes.

Get a coach, already

What solution does Williams recommend? Drop the pretensions of invincibility and get some help. "In today's high-pressure environment, leaders need a confidante, a mentor, or someone they can trust to tell the truth about their behavior. They rarely get that from employees and infrequently from board members," he claims. A coach is the perfect solution. Williams goes on to offer a long list of leaders, from Eric Schmidt to Barack Obama, who utilize coaches and recommend them to others.

If so many high-profile leaders use coaches, why does it sometimes feel like a weak indulgence to some entrepreneurs? According to TrackMaven CEO Allen Gannett, the problem is the "popular mythology that the most successful CEOs are independent visionaries who create value through sheer inspiration and force of will."

In order to explode this myth, Gannett conducted a not-entirely-scientific survey of 56 venture-backed startup CEOs. "39 percent of CEOs in the survey used an executive coach in the last 12 months, a proportion that increased dramatically as their companies scaled. While 32 percent of seed-stage CEOs used a coach, 60 percent of growth-stage CEOs did the same," he reported in a Fast Company article.

In short, needing a coach isn't a sign of weakness. Nor are you at all alone in benefiting from the help of a professional. So get over your ego, and get yourself the support you need to perform at your peak.

"Great leadership really does take a village, including in ways we don't always imagine it to," concludes Gannett.