Leadership development: myths that stop managers being leaders

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

15-Jan-2015 20:53:28

Misguided beliefs often limit leadership development


There seems to be a lot of mystery – and misdirection – around the idea of leadership. Unfortunately, this often results in a lot of misunderstanding about what leadership is and many people end up falsely believing they don’t have what it takes to be a leader. Equally unfortunately, many people believe they are great leaders when they aren’t (yet). Any leadership development initiative must start by challenging these misguided beliefs - leadership skill will only be acquired by people who believe they have both the capability and the need.

Leadership development is very broad and this will be the first of many posts on the topic

leadership development mythsIs a myth a female moth?

No - and if you haven't read Anguished English, the hilarious collection of real mistakes made by students in essays, you are probably wondering why I even ask! (Assuming you like a laugh, get a copy of this great book by Richard Lederer).

A myth is a legend or a fable - and they can be dangerous. We often believe them without questionning them, without asking whether they are true or, in fact, just fairytales. Some myths are especially dangerous because they limit our belief about what we can achieve - and this is very much the case with leadership myths.

Let's have a look at five of the more entrenched and damaging myths surrounding leadership and find ways to stop them holding back your leadership development.

1. Leadership is about your job or your title

Ideally leadership is implicit in certain roles but simply having a certain title or job doesn't make you a leader. The difference is clear. You were appointed to a job as manager or supervisor; the way you do that job determines whether you are also a leader. Manager is a title, leadership is behaviour.

Management is not optional. If you don’t do it, things go wrong and people quickly notice - plus it is probably in your position description.

Leadership feels more like a discretionary choice and if you don’t do it people won’t notice for a while and, even then, the cause of issues isn’t always obvious.

Can you think of managers who don’t actually provide any leadership (this is not the moment to look around and catch your boss’s eye!). Can you think of people who lead through their actions even though they don’t have a fancy title? Martin Luther King had no formal authority but decided to be the person who acted and made amazing change in the world. In Australia, Eddie Mabo did the same as did Malala in Afghanistan.

Every day in organisations around the world, people take responsibility for things, some tiny and unnoticed, others major and profound. It could be taking the initiative to heal a relationship, to provide a positive example by committing to a goal, to go the extra step in the hope that it inspires a team – these are the true leaders.

Are you a ‘someone should do something about that’ or a ‘I will do something about that’ kind of person. Pick your battles – you can’t solve all of the world’s problems but look for opportunities to take leadership outside the formal framework.

2. Leaders are born that way

The previous point should make it very clear that I think this is total garbage. There are many qualities that good leaders can have – and all of them can be learned. You don’t have to be tall, short, athletic, handsome or any other quality that may be heavily genetically influenced.

Before you send me messages pointing out examples of someone who is a ‘born leader’, think about this – are they the norm or do they represent the extreme exception? Some smokers live to 90 but it still doesn’t make smoking good for you!

The reality is that most people are born with some of the qualities of leadership and have to acquire the rest through learning and hard work. Just as importantly, most of us are born with a trait or two that actually gets in the way of our leadership development and we have to learn to harness them – again, through learning and hard work

3. You need charismatic qualities to be a leader

Am I getting predictable? Again, this is rubbish. Sure, I know some leaders are charismatic –often those that seem to be in the headlines. Names that spring to mind are Richard Branson and Barack Obama – but these are once again the exceptions and not the rule. There are dozens of leaders that you could walk past in the street and never notice – and others who are out and out boring (several politicians spring to mind!)

I could list some leaders who aren’t charismatic but you may not recognise many of them because, well, they just aren’t charismatic. In fact, we don’t remember charismatic leaders who fail – how many of you can name the boss of Lehman Brothers , the financial services company who seemed to behave disastorously in the days leading up to the GFC (without Googling)? It seems we don’t remember leaders for their charisma but for their positive actions and their positive results.

4. Leadership is good; management is bad

No, no, no – please don’t believe that. When great management is supplemented by great leadership, anything is possible – but one without the other is much less effective. Sure, management without leadership means moderate results achieved by people with average levels of engagement, motivation and commitment. However, leadership with no management can lead to inspired chaos, short term results and then a decline as people lose faith.
Implementing both leadership and management can lead to a slower build up – but the results are sustainable

5. Leadership is complicated

A phrase we use a lot at The Real Learning Experience (what we like to call a Real-ism), is that it is simple but not easy. Like so much in life, great leadership is simply about consistently repeating a core set of behaviours. It isn’t that complex – but it isn’t that easy either. 

So why is something straightforward still difficult? Because leaders deal with people and people can be unpredictable: we like to describe them as having lots of moving parts! The more moving parts an object has, the more likely it is to go wrong.

leadership development patternOur tip here is to think about what you expect from your leaders – and then do that stuff. I would love people to submit comments about what they expect from their leaders – I bet there is a pattern but I won’t tell you what it is until you have a chance to comment. Just so I can’t cheat, I am writing it on a card and putting it in an envelope in my top drawer right now! In my next leadership post, I will tell you what is written on the card.

Challenging these myths is an important step in your leadership development. When you realise that these myths are just barriers that exist only in our minds, you realise you can be a good (or even great) leader by just doing certain things. More on what these things are in my next leadership development post

BTW, the boss of Lehman Brothers was Dick Fuld.

Maintaining a focus on leadership

Because we know that intentions get swamped by workplace demands and because leadership development is a journey of perserverance, we have created these wall posters for you to print out and display on your office walls. They are inspirational, in full colour, beautifully designed and - best of all - free!

  Download six high quality wall posters with inspiring leadership messages

photo credit (moth): Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via photopin cc