The Myths about being a Good Leader
Living North columnist Dr Maurice Duffy examines the myths that surround good leadership
What is surprising are the ongoing leadership myths that I consistently encounter when I run Leadership Workshops or my coaching sessions. I find my delegates and clients usually agree that when it comes to leadership there is no one size fits all; every leader has their own personality, style, and approach to leading teams which is a good starting point. It never takes long for the same leadership myths to surface – but they are very easy to debunk.
Myth 1: Great leaders are born, not made.
‘Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal,’ Vince Lombardi. ‘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 G. Bennis. Anyone can excel at anything if they truly put their mind to it. Leadership is a skill, not a genetic disposition.
Myth 2: Leaders work smarter, not harder.
In today’s climate, people seem to be overworked more than ever before, pushing priorities to the back burner. It’s an epidemic that impacts employees, companies and our entire economy. The problem I see in today’s society is that everything is marked as urgent, and leaders are constantly getting more things dumped onto their plate. It’s not a matter of doing this or this, but rather doing this and this. And this… Great leaders know how to leverage their teams effectively and are very protective of their time, ruthless about priorities, and shrewd in applying their knowledge and experience. One could call that ‘working smart’. But nothing great has ever been achieved without working hard. Great leaders are role models and walk the talk.
Myth 3: Leaders can’t show vulnerability.
Perhaps one of the most prevalent myths is that leaders, no matter the situation, must dig in and stand their ground. If they accept fault, change direction, or listen to others, then that’s a sign of weakness. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Strong leaders own their mistakes, are prepared to admit when they don’t know something and are inquisitive about learning.
Myth 4: Extroverted leaders are preferred.
What’s the difference between extroverts and introverts? Extroverts are thought to be more outgoing and confident. Introverts are considered shy and withdrawn. However, being extroverted or introverted has more to do with how we process information. Extroverts work through problems by discussing them and seeking the advice and input from others. Introverts process their thoughts and conflicts internally. Extroverts enjoy a distinct advantage in four categories: emotional; interpersonal; motivational and performance related. Yet introverts bring other numerous characteristics that contribute to workplace success, including cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and the ability to regulate negative emotions. There are also many jobs, such as computer programming, where having introverted characteristics, such as listening skills or the ability to focus, can lead to great things. Larry Page, Bill Gates and Albert Einstein stand as solid examples of just how successful introverts can be. There are many more whose names don’t ring a bell. Why? Because they work to highlight the organisation and not themselves.
Myth 5: Leaders have all the answers.
The best leaders have a clear understanding of their own limitations. They know that success is a team sport and there is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ person. They realise that it takes a diverse team to truly innovate and transform an organisation. Great leaders listen with the intent to learn.
Myth 6: Great leaders are always in the spotlight.
It is true that if you are a leader of the company there is an expectation that you will also be a company’s spokesperson. But leadership comes in many forms. You don’t have to be on the organisation’s executive team to be a leader. True leaders (whether they are at the helm or not) are humble. They don’t much care about the spotlight. They care about the results – and that comes from focus. Some of the greatest leaders of our time were simple men who shied away from limelight and yet have transformed industries and took their companies to new heights. ‘You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit,’ Harry S. Truman. ‘It’s alright to be Goliath but always act like David,’ Philip Knight.
Myth 7: Leaders are always ‘on’.
Even though great leaders work hard, they realise that they need the space to be able to strategise, to think, to create. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were known to go away for extended periods of time to reconnect with themselves, their vision, and their ideas. Leaders need to find that place of wisdom, strength, and real connection (with themselves and others) and they need to lead from that place. Smart leaders also build the culture of creativity through encouraging their employees to take time to reflect.
Myth 8: Leaders should always put on an optimistic front.
This may sound counterintuitive to some, but it is actually common sense. This leader’s relentless can-do attitude and confidence in their team to overcome challenges, can end up downplaying how difficult things can be, dismissing valid struggles as trivial, and denying their version of how things are. Great leaders avoid defaulting always to an up-beat attitude in the hope it will raise spirits but understand their team and look for a solution in every problem, rather than overloading with optimism.
Myth 9: Leaders must eliminate mistakes.
It’s easy to see leaders as infallible. However, not only does everyone make mistakes, but those errors help us learn and grow. Rather than punishing or discouraging failure, good leaders observe how employees react to difficult situations. Without trial and error, there can be no innovation. The roadmap to great leadership is understanding that it is an ongoing journey of unlearning, learning and relearning. The challenge I often meet is that most leaders are talented but not all leaders are inquisitive about learning or themselves, nor are they willing to put that learning into practice.