The 3 biggest myths about leadership and why it’s hard to get rid of them

18 February 2016 - 12:00am

Enter the word ‘leadership’ into Google and you’ll come up with 479,000,000 hits. It must be one of the most written about topics with new material coming out all the time through training programs, conferences, books and (dare I say it) blogs. Yet despite this huge amount of material, my experience is that a number of myths about leadership persist.

These myths are pervasive and pop up in our public discourse when we encounter major social, economic or environmental problems. So at the risk of adding to this growing mountain of material, let me share with you what I see as the 3 biggest myths on leadership and why I think they are so hard to get rid of.

1. Leaders have special innate skills

It surprises me that people still fall for the notion that ‘leaders are born and not made’ when all the evidence suggests otherwise. Clearly there have been a few individuals in history who from birth have appeared ‘destined’ to do great things, but there are plenty more who, while inheriting all the right genes and life chances, haven’t exhibited much in the way of leadership at all.

When we believe that some people have innate leadership capabilities we are really talking about some sort of charisma - or as someone I know recently called it on a scholarship panel - ‘the X factor.’

In reality, people that lead do so because of a combination of their genes, life experience, choices and perhaps most importantly, an abiding obsession with a problem to be solved. Some of the most impressive leaders I’ve worked with were not especially charismatic - just ordinary people who had somewhere they wanted to go and were able to bring people on the journey with them because their passion and logic was deeply compelling.

2. The more authority you have the more you can lead

People of all ages consistently equate leadership with authority. They believe they can’t create change because they are not in a formal institutionalised role that has authority and power.

The assumption here is that only those few people in formal leadership roles in government, business or the community can get things done and lead.

I hear this all the time: young people say "I will do something about this problem when I get that role as CEO" or older people who are not in such roles become resigned to their ‘place’ and leave the leading to those in the formalised roles.

It’s a myth to think that those in formal roles of leadership have more opportunity to lead and create change. In fact it can be very hard to truly lead in these roles! Sometimes it’s easier when you are not constrained by the expectations of people and the weight of the needs of an institution. This has become pronounced in recent years with people in these roles increasingly seduced by the drive of managerialism. I’m reminded of that quote that ‘leadership is doing the right thing and management is doing things right.’ The drive to do things ‘right’ from within our institutions is incredibly strong and can be a dead weight for those in these roles who truly want to lead and perhaps break the rules in order to get things done and even innovate.

Perhaps what this means is that leadership is not a role but an act and can therefore come from anyone, either a person in a formal leadership role in an institution or a person within an organisation or from the community at large.

3. Leaders know the answers

This myth creates an enormous challenge for people. It can mean they don’t step up to take the lead on an issue because they don’t feel like they know quite enough, often meaning they end up constantly trying to learn more through further research or study. While this is great for educational institutions, and let’s face it we should all be committed to life-long learning, it can mean people miss the point that on many issues there are often not simple answers and that when you lead you go to the edge of your competence.

I’ve had the pleasure of working up-close with many senior leaders from across business, government and the community sectors and have come to the conclusion that most of them are at least partly making things up as they go and relying on the leadership of the people in their teams to see them through.

The best leaders acknowledge this fact and build teams that are made up of people that are diverse, have more technical expertise than the leader in various areas and willingly embrace robust engagement as the way to get better answers together.

 

As you can see this leadership stuff is not rocket science but really just common sense, but why are these myths so consistently pervasive and hard to get rid of?

It’s easy to think that leaders have magical innate skills, are solely in formal roles of authority and have all the answers because it lets the rest of us of the hook. It can stop us from making the difficult changes we need to make or stepping up to take action. You hear it time and time again in public discourse when we say ‘all we need is the right type of leader who will show us the way forward.’ In expecting so much of our leaders we choose to abrogate our own responsibility to lead and ignore the fact that we all have the potential to lead.

 

What if we believed that we all have the potential to lead no matter who we are and what role we play?

This might help us see more clearly the true nature of leadership and mean that we’re more likely to have the confidence to step up and lead in our area of passion and interest rather than waiting for someone else to take charge.

 

Doug Taylor is the Director for Strategic Engagement and is focused on strengthening Uniting’s strategic agenda and work with stakeholders. He was previously the CEO of United Way Australia and has built a 20 year professional career in the Social Sector out of this passion as well as an active life in volunteering. These interests are manifest in his membership on the Boards of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, the Centre for Social Impact Advisory Board and as a proud Trustee of the Steve Lawrence Social Innovation Fund. He is an alumnus of Social Leadership Australia, tweets at @dougtayloruw and writes a blog at  https://blogaworkinglife.wordpress.com