Many opportunities for leadership come not from the top but from all the layers of the organization. So you don’t have to be “top dog” to influence others and create positive change. However, many workers resist exercising their leadership abilities because of skewed beliefs, cultural fears, or unwarranted perceptions. This article will address five common myths about leadership and highlight current evidence-based realities from respected leaders across different fields of practice.
You are a leader. This daunting declaration cannot be taken lightly. You probably have moments of great pride and days of serious doubt, as leaders must be unrelenting in their quest to influence others and create value-added change. Our world is turbulent–constantly in flux and intensely competitive. In high-performing organizations, agility, fortitude, and continuous learning are indispensible. With today’s environment, you might think that leadership was pervasive throughout every organization. It’s not. With increasing challenges and decreasing resources, continued success demands a collective passion for leadership not just at the top but also throughout every level in the organization.
As I reviewed contemporary literature and interviewed coworkers, I became aware that numerous mindsets existed about leadership. Workforce skepticism, fear, inexperience, and misinformation create barriers—and excuses—that obstruct the advancement of diversified leadership. Five common myths restrict workers from fully exercising their leadership talents. Citing research and experiences from performance practitioners, this article will offer some intriguing perspectives to help individuals reconsider their assumptions and embrace their potential for greater leadership at every level.
Common Leadership Myths
Myths are common beliefs often based on partial truths, personal experiences, and popular allegory. Whether a fabrication of one’s imagination or a generally accepted position, the following five leadership myths continue to permeate throughout the workplace.
Origin – Leaders are born, not made.
Position – Leadership and management are the same.
Control – Leaders make a big difference.
Influence – There’s a right way to lead.
Potential – Not everyone can be a leader.
The topic of leadership is a popular one and it is likely that you have encountered one or more of these myths in your own workplace. What surprised me was the level of blind acceptance of these legends. Assumptions about the origin of leaders, positional power, the control and influence of leaders, and the potential for exercising one’s own talents blinded many colleagues from scores of opportunities, despite the research of such notables as John Kotter, John Maxwell, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Robert Sutton, Joel Kurtzman, and others. What do you think? Are the following statements true or false?
1. Origin – Leaders are born, not made.
False. Many friendly dinner conversations have erupted around the nature-versus-nurture debate. Passionate opinions are often supported with arguments based on pseudo-evidence from personality assessments, informal diagnostics, or even horoscopes touting one’s leadership acumen. Much too much credit is given to the alpha personality. Granted, genetics maycontribute to one’s comfort and confidence in taking charge, but even natural born leaders are more than products of their DNA.
According to Maxwell (2005, p. 9), “Becoming a good leader is a lifelong process.” To cultivate leadership, individuals need to hone their talents and develop skills over time. High caliber leaders repeatedly attribute their success to practice, trial and error, and the results of meaningful relationships with respected mentors.
It is not uncommon for workers to be assigned to leadership positions before they are ready. “Instead of nurturing talent, encouraging people to lead and to learn from mistakes, all too often, organizations ignore leadership potential…and punish those who make small errors while trying to lead” (Kotter, 1999, p. 3). Organizations need to invest beyond training and provide ongoing, developmental experiences that allow workers to apply their leadership competencies in a variety of conditions. Organizations must delegate authority and accountability or people will never gain the experience and confidence to lead well. According to Maxwell (2005, p. 302), “It is impossible to learn leadership without actually leading.” Becoming a leader doesn’t just happen by chance. It requires choice and community investment.
2. Position – Leadership and management are the same.
False. For decades, Kotter has examined the role and work of leaders. Although the terms leader and manager are often used synonymously, the functions are clearly different. Kotter (1999) clarifies that leadership and management are distinct yet interdependent. Leadership without management results in chaos. Management without leadership generates entrenchment. Both functions are essential to high performing organizations. Leaders develop vision and strategies, align resources, and empower workers to achieve desired results. Managers execute strategy through diverse operating functions. Leaders strive for productive change working through people and culture. Managers ensure efficiency working through hierarchy and systems. One is not better than the other. Both are essential for success.