Six Myths About Leadership

What are your beliefs about leadership? That leaders are born, not made? That there is only one right way to lead? Or, that you need to be in a formal leadership position to lead?

Let’s explore these beliefs and others that are myths (i.e., widely held beliefs or ideas).

Myth #1 Leaders are born and not made. 

If this is true then the $14 billion dollars spent annually on leadership development is a rather colossal waste of money. Any vestiges of this belief remain from the “great man theories” that men born into, usually wealthy and/or royal families, were born to lead. The truth is that leaders—both female and male—are made not born.

Myth #2 There is one right way to lead.

There is ample evidence that there is no one right way to lead because all situations differ. Just because you have a hammer does not mean that every situation requires pounding. For example, leading an Emergency Room in a hospital differs dramatically from leading the hospital as a whole.

Myth # 3 You have to be in a formal position of leadership to lead.

A formal position of leadership is usually noted by such titles as president, CEO or COO, chairman, supervisor, manager. However, leading involves interacting with, relating to, and influencing others. Anyone can influence an interaction or a situation for good or ill. As an employee, family member, or community member you lead because you influence every situation you are in through what you say and do. In other words, even when you do not have a formal position of leadership, you lead.

Myth # 4 Leaders need to be strong and not show their emotions, especially sadness or pain. Anger, however, demonstrates toughness.

Some of the most compelling and inspiring leaders with whom I have had the privilege to work were real. They expressed their emotions and were honest about what was evoking their feelings. Because they shared emotions sparingly, when they did it was riveting and encouraged everyone to show up, become more fully present to themselves and to the situation at hand.

Anger, however, especially when expressed at others, can frighten people into ducking and covering, withdrawing their full presence along with their support and engagement.

Myth # 5 Power comes with the leadership position.

Power, when thought of as control, is a limited resource. Controlling people through positional power has a limited shelf life. Using threats and rewards, carrots and sticks only gets you so far. When power is thought of as the ability to mobilize people and resources to get things done, then power becomes an expanding resource. And, the sources of power are not just a position; they become more numerous and include things like values, emotions, relationships, expertise, experience, networks, empathy and teamwork.

Myth # 6 You need to be like someone else, perhaps a leader you admire, to be effective.

One of the touching lessons that participants learn every year in the Cascadia Center for Leadership program is that they do not need to be someone else. They need to investigate who they are—including their gifts and talents, what values are most important to them, what they deeply care about, and what they want to accomplish. The key question is: what is their leadership in service of?

Answers to these questions form the foundation for developing themselves as human beings and as leaders in what we think of as the five leadership domains:
• Intrapersonal: developing and managing oneself
• Interpersonal: effectively conducting conversations, especially difficult ones
• Group: developing and leading high performance teams and planning and leading effective meetings
• Organizational: Creating change in organizations
• Community and Inter-organizational: Creating change in communities and across sectors

One of my favorite definitions of leadership comes from Peter M. Senge because it avoids reinforcing any of the myths noted above and opens the door to a far more complex reality that fits my experience. “Leadership is deeply personal and inherently collective. That’s a paradox that effective leaders have to embrace. It does depend on them. It does depend on their convictions, their clarity, their personal commitment to their own cultivation. And, on the other hand, it doesn’t depend on them. It’s an inherently collective phenomenon.”

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