I was driving my son to a music lesson, and I asked him an interesting question (we always have interesting conversations in the car!). The question was “When someone says they are a leader, what assumptions do you automatically make?”. Whilst it is easy to talk about leadership, we rarely look at the assumptions that we make when discussing leadership and how to be a great leader.
For example, if you follow any discussion on social media or listen to a presentation at any conference on ‘leadership’, then often the unspoken assumptions about leaders and leadership are trotted out – and never questioned. This simply strengthens the myth. The current political landscape is a clear example of how the ‘myths’ of leadership are simply accepted without question – and can get the leaders, and those they lead, into trouble.
The myths of leadership can get in the way of creating high quality leadership cultures, processes and practices. If we simply rely on the myths and assumptions that have developed around leadership to direct our thinking, then our concept of leadership and how we can be a great leader is both limited and often false.
Like any concept, ‘leadership’ is shrouded in myths and assumptions that we automatically make, but can be teased out and explored. By bringing them into the open, we can see how they impact the narrative around leadership, and how real leadership can emerge by avoiding the assumptions that they create.
So what are some of the myths of leadership?
Leaders have power. The myth goes that leaders are powerful. However, power is held by those that you lead, and they delegate the use of that power based upon trust and shared purpose. This means that leaders who think they can exercise power for their own benefit, or in ways that work against the people that they lead, will rapidly find the trust and power withdrawn.
When power is withdrawn, the leader becomes a ‘lame duck’. As a leader it is important to realise that you are only the custodian of the group’s power, and that how you exercise this power is continuously under scrutiny by those you are leading. This delegation of power is continuously negotiable, and controlled by those you lead.
How this power is used is critical to the team’s success. Part of leadership exchange theory suggests that leaders are given greater idiosyncratic credit – that is, they are given allowance to be a bit ‘different’ from the others by virtue of their position. Leaders are also the most visible and salient members of the group, so how they use this power and idiosyncratic credit is always under close scrutiny.
Leaders can use this power for their own advantage or for the benefit of the group. As just one example, a great leader, understands the nature of power and can use it to capture and deliver innovation from the group. If a great idea comes up from one of the team, a great leader will grab the idea and use their salience, visibility and credit to get the group to focus on it to see if it is valuable. This means that the innovation is captured and evaluated. Poor leaders use their power, visibility and salience in service of running their own agenda and may simply move on to their own next point or action, meaning that the innovation is cast aside and lost. Often the trust of the group is lost as well. This is but one example. Great leaders know that the power they wield is not theirs, they are merely its custodian.
The most charismatic person becomes leader. The myth suggests that the most charismatic person becomes the leader. The truth is that a person who draws everyone’s attention (and considered charismatic) may be blocked from leadership, depending on the context and the person’s approach. The person who is too charismatic may not be seen to embody the leadership style or skills that serve the group, and therefore may be blocked from leadership. Often, ‘charismatic’ individuals are pigeonholed as attention seeking, self-absorbed or even ‘zany’. People with a lot of ‘charisma’ need to ensure that they show deeper leadership qualities to avoid being pigeonholed like this.
Charisma is something that leaders are given by the people they lead – just like power, it is delegated from the group to the leader as part of their increased salience, visibility and idiosyncratic credit (which, in a way, is almost a description of in-group charisma). Charismatic leaders that are too self centred (or too zany) will lose the group as they no longer represent its ‘protoypical member’ – the imaginary vision of the most suitable member and leader should look like. Without this support, charisma ends up just looking quirky.
Leaders can also have extremely charismatic personalities within their teams or groups, and the real leadership skill is channelling that of charisma of others to good use inside and outside the group to enhance performance.
A great leader is transferable. The myth is that a great leader is always a great leader. As we saw with Winston Churchill, this did not hold true. Before the war, and after, Churchill was regarded as a poor leader and was relegated to minor roles. However, in the context of WWII, Churchill was regarded as one of the greatest leaders of his age. Cometh the moment, cometh the man.
Often the specific style and skills that someone possesses that makes them a good leader in one context makes them a poor leader in another.
In fact, as times change, leaders can also become outdated. The way that leaders operated in the 70s and 80s simply would not be accepted these days. The future seems to suggest that leaders are going to need to be highly social and connected, which are skills that older style leaders may not have developed.
Leaders that are transferable across contexts and times are rare. Many leaders are great in ‘like-for-like’ situations (for example, corporate mergers, growing small businesses, crisis recovery), but are not the best option for different circumstances or contexts. Too often leaders have specific strengths that they play to, or situations that bring out their best. Great leaders know their limitations, and know where they can be great leaders – and where they will not.
There is a personality type that makes the best leader (introverts don’t make good leaders). The myth is that ‘strong’ personalities, such as the famed ‘A’ type personality, make the best leaders. There is no support for this proposition. In fact, expression of personality traits is a preference, and to suggest that expression of traits valuable for leadership is only possible from a particular ‘type’ is limiting.
Great leaders, rather than having ‘strong’ personality traits, have flexible personality styles. They are able to flex their style to serve the purpose of their leadership in that moment. Leaders who have ‘strong’ personalities often lose the people they lead because this lack of situational and emotional awareness means that they play the ‘extrovert’ style, for example, even when this is likely to negatively impact those that they lead. Introverts can be great leaders too, provided they are self and situationally aware.
Everyone should aspire to leadership. There is a myth that ‘leadership’ is a highly sought after trait that everyone should aspire to have. The truth is that leading is a particular social position which some people excel at holding and exercising, and for others it is both a burden and significantly unpleasant. For example, people who seek low inclusion, those who are not happy being thrust into the limelight and are uncomfortable with significance or responsibility would find leadership incredibly taxing.
It is not for them to become a different person so leadership becomes comfortable to them, but rather finding a place within the team or organisation where they can flourish. We should not ask these individuals to aspire to leadership, but for mastery of what they do, and find the right place for them in the organisation or team.
When status is judged based on the distance from the top of the organisation, this can cause conflict. People want the status that comes with leadership positions, however they are ill suited to (and really don’t want) to ‘lead’. This conflict often leads to great employees being promoted to the wrong roles (the best sales rep is not always the best sales manager!), with significant negative impact on performance, and often loss of talent because they were put into the wrong roles and get burned out or leave.
Ensuring status pathways for non-leaders and concentrating on hiring the right leader for leadership roles can alleviate this problem.
Leaders should be authentic. The myth is that authenticity is a critical new skill for leaders. The problem is that authenticity revolves around expressing yourself as you feel it, and respond from gut instinct. This means that rather than flexing to help those they lead to be in their comfort zones and perform at their best, the leader operates from their own social needs and style.
Being authentic at understanding yourself is important, but being ‘authentically authentic’ stops thoughtful application of style and skills to better lead. It is being thoughtful and flexible that will make a better leader, rather than someone who is authentic and responds to their ‘feelings and needs’ in any moment.
Leaders who are authentic in expressing their vulnerability may encourage personal trust on the one hand (a good thing), but can also introduce a feeling of uncertainty in the group or team that they are leading – which can have a big impact on performance, innovation and collaboration behaviours. Leaders need to judge how much authenticity and vulnerability they express to those that they lead, from a thoughtful and pragmatic frame of reference.
Leaders have the answers. The myth is that Leaders have special knowledge. That they have answers that others do not. It is the reason there is a ‘cult of leadership’ spawning books from celebrity leaders. They share their ‘secrets’ and increase their celebrity. In truth, leadership emerges in context. As with the Winston Churchill example before, leadership becomes ‘great’ when the response of the leader to a circumstance leads to a great outcome. The ‘best’ way to lead is not fixed, but is based on an array of variables including self and situational awareness, knowledge of the greater purpose, and an understanding of the perceptions of the people that you are leading.
Reading the latest ‘Rockstar Leader’ Bio is great if you view it through the biopic lens in which it was created, and assess what you read through the context in which the ‘leadership’ was expressed. A well written piece on leadership must explore the context, the choices, the ethics, the perceptions of the people and the greater purpose being served. They should never be regarded as a ‘how to’ step by step manual, unless your situation directly mirrors theirs.
As we look at just these few assumptions and myths, what stands out is that leadership creates value when it is flexible, negotiated and contextual. Leadership is not a fixed set of skills or ‘traits’, but rather a deep self and situational awareness and a capacity to make quality choices for the greater good.
As you consider the idea of ‘leadership’, what other assumptions and myths do you notice that you associate with the concept?
What value or values do you ascribe to the ideal of ‘leadership?
Which assumptions should you challenge to allow your leadership to flourish?