3 Leadership Myths Rarely Discussed…If at All

You’ve seen the articles about leadership myths, but most seem well-known including:

  • Leaders are born, not made
  • Leaders need to be extroverts / charismatic / popular / outgoing …
  • You need authoritative role to lead (such as being a manager or executive)
  • Leaders are always right
  • Reading about leadership is enough to become a leader
  • Men make better leaders than women
  • Leaders solve problems that others can’t solve by followers

The myths below are different: few talk about them or even recognize that they exist.

I derived these myths while researching how leadership is radically changing. Examining myths – especially tacit ones – and demystifying them helps to distinguish leadership from management, to avoid making these mistakes, and to practice authentic and effective leadership.

Myth #1: Leadership is about getting things Directing others like a puppet master and a puppetdone through others

In their books, several authors define leadership in terms of accomplishing visions,  goals, or objectives by influencing followers to do the work. Hence, leaders get others to do stuff that they need to get done. They obtain buy-in and influence them to act. While many are attracted to this notion, the myth more accurately describes management rather than leadership. Consider Follet’s definition of management:

The art of getting things done through people

     – Mary Parker Follet’s definition of management

If leadership isn’t getting stuff done through others, then what is it? At a Skillsoft Books24x7 event [note: you need a subscription to access the link], David Marquet said this:

Leadership is not about getting people to do stuff.
It’s about getting people to think.

– L. David Marquet

Leadership is more about helping others to develop mentally and morally. Simply put, it’s about helping others build character. By doing so, those practicing leadership mutually benefit from helping others and ultimately benefits teams, departments, organizations, and even society.

Myth #2: Organizations have leadership roles

A boss looking out a glass wall at a cityThis is a variation of the popular myth, leaders need authority. In a recent talk that I did, participants seemed to agree that anyone, regardless of role, can practice leadership. Near the end of the talk, a few people started asking questions about how they should approach their leadership team to obtain approval to enhance their leadership-development programs. After asking a few questions, I discovered that while they agree with me that anyone can practice leadership, they still believe that certain jobs (such as those at the C-Suite level) are leadership roles and different from other roles.

Here’s the problem: Organizations can’t assign leadership. They can artificially call executive-level roles leadership roles and the C-Suite a leadership team, but organizations can’t require executives to practice leadership. Those in roles at the executive level manage the organization but don’t necessarily use leadership practices to do so.

Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the senior-most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them.

–   Simon Sinek

People often mistake management at the organization level to be the practice of leadership. It’s just a type of management that differs from managing processes or people.

So, you can be told that you have a leadership role, but it’s up to you to practice leadership or not.

Myth #3: To practice effective leadership, you apply the best style to meet the needs of a specific situation

Organizational Savvy and related termsWhile this myth seems to refer to Situational Leadership® II (SLII®), it doesn’t. Depending on the source, below is a list of leadership styles:

  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Free Reign
  • Laissez-faire
  • People-oriented
  • Transactional
  • Transformational
  • Servant leadership

What’s confusing about this list is that some authors refer to them as styles while others interchangeably describe them as styles and theories. Regardless, the general belief is that leaders are supposed to examine a situation and determine which style (or theory) to apply to achieve the best result.

The reality is that people don’t think this way. While the general concept may be well defined, the related behaviors for each style is unclear. Also unclear is knowing which style to apply for a given situation and when.

Rather than complicating leadership with trying to learn abstract styles and figuring out when and how to apply them, people would be better off learning specific leadership behaviors and techniques designed for types of situations as well as the thinking behind each behavior.

This is what The Blanchard Companies did with SLII for developing ability with confidence. SLII is a way to help others become self-reliant in accomplishing a specific task. Depending on how effective the other person is, you would apply one of four techniques: directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating to improve how someone accomplishes the task.

(Note that while Blanchard labels his four techniques as leadership styles, they are much different than styles like autocratic and democratic. Rather they are behaviors with a rich thought process supporting each one.)

Summing it up: Leadership ain’t easy to comprehend

Over several decades of traditional thinking and confusing leadership with management, people misunderstand what really is involved in practicing leadership. Thankfully, authors such as Liz Wiseman, Simon Sinek, David Marquet (and others) have started the process of demystifying the meaning of leadership.

While some have starting considering how the principles, beliefs, and practices of Leadership are radically changing, many still think traditionally and fail to benefit from what 21st Century Leadership has to offer.

Published by

Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT

"I help organizations become more effective at leadership development." Gary A. DePaul is an expert on how leadership is radically changing. He has two decades of experience as a practitioner and scholar of leadership, has worked as a manager in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. He completed his Ph.D. and Ed.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and a bachelor's degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). ISPI has designated him as a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT). https://www.garyadepaul.com https://twitter.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/garydepaul https://www.facebook.com/garyadepaul