Slaying 6 Myths of Leadership

February 27, 2007

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A leader does not have to be larger than life. Nor is a project manager necessarily the project leader. Here we tear down these and other misconceptions about leadership, including: that only managers are leaders, that a leader cannot be made, that it is about control, and, of course, the old "Complete Leader" myth.

1) Leader As Rock Star Also called "Great Man Syndrome," this myth says that leaders must have some elusive, larger-than-life "rock star" personality to be effective. Otherwise, people will not follow. While some leaders do have charismatic personalities, "it is not a prerequisite to being an effective leader," writes Mike Griffiths, a project manager at Quadrus Development.

Many leaders that have groomed world-class organizations won the confidence and support of their teams and achieved the long-term growth and stability required for stellar performance with their humility and human approach.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins profiles the personality types of the leaders behind the companies that met the "Good to Great "success criteria. Of the stellar companies examined, all 11 of the leaders demonstrated high levels of "humility and will." Via humility and a dedication to purpose, they have quietly but systematically built (or transformed ordinary organizations into) the very best companies in the world. Collins' research suggests that being humble, but unwavering toward the right goals, is far more important characteristics than larger-than-life personalities.

You do not need to be a "rock star" to lead.

2) Leadership Is Only For Those In Senior Positions This myth says that leadership techniques are not applicable to "ordinary" workers. Although the term "leader" is most often associated with senior executives, the goals and roles of leadership apply equally well in a project setting, problem-solving group or voluntary group. "The truth is that leadership is everyone's business," writes Griffiths.

Wherever a group forms with a common purpose, the skills of leadership can be employed by anyone.

Meanwhile, being a manager does not automatically equal being a leader. As we proposed last year, whether the group's members you oversee are called employees, associates, coworkers or even teammates, what they are looking for is someone in whom they can place their trust; someone they know is working for the greater good — for them and for the organization, according to Leslie L. Kossoff, consultant and head of Kossoff Management Consulting. They're looking for someone they can and want to follow.

3) Leaders Are Born, Not Made Leadership is a rare ability only given to a few, goes this myth. Last year we noted the intangibility of "leadership" and how it remains a component that some people have and others wish to attain. Can anybody transform from manager to leader? Many people still think leaders are born not made. In fact, this myth may be the furthest thing from the truth.

According to Bruce Avolio at Psychology Today:

After 50 years of collecting data on the topic, most psychologists believe that leadership qualities are innate or genetic and thus impossible to learn. Yet my colleagues and I presented over a decade of research showing that leadership skills can be developed and mastered.

Most people have the potential to become good leaders, according to nationally recognized author, business performance consultant and Chart Your Course International CEO Greg Smith. "Leadership is not like a diet pill. Like most learned skills, it takes time, training and lots of trial by error," he writes at Business Know-How.

4) On Projects, Only The Project Manager Can Be A Leader Although leadership is often linked to strategy and plans — the domain of the project manager — anyone on a project can step up and take a leadership role. This does not need to threaten or undermine the role of the project manager. Rather, it can be taking responsibility for a problem or issue.

Griffiths writes:

Recently, a developer on my project took responsibility for owning and solving a particularly complex interface problem. He saw the problem, observed how people were struggling with it, suggested a solution, rallied support and collaboration, which solved the problem. This is an example of situational leadership. He was not in control of the project, but saw that he was in a position to lead the charge on a solution. Rather than feeling threatened by team members taking a leadership role (I'm relieved), here's an empowered team in action … and one less problem for the project.

5) Leadership Is About Control Leadership is not about command and control — it is about "getting people excited about a common goal and enabling them to achieve it." Leaders do not specify exactly how things must be performed; instead, they gain buy-in for a solution, try to align project goals with personal goals and then leverage people's ingenuity to achieve a result.

Leadership aims to create performance contributions in the "passionate innovation" range. "Get people united and fired-up about a goal, then let them go at it and support them all you can," writes Griffiths.

6) The Ultimate Leadership Myth: 'The Complete Leader' In a recent Harvard Business Review article aptly titled In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, the authors reported their disbelief that anyone can do all of the things required by their model of a good leader. But that doesn't bother them. "It's time to end the myth of the complete leader; the flawless person at the top who's got it all figured out," they write.

"First of all, no one is omniscient and flawless," says Deborah Ancona, professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center (via ComputerWorld). "No leader can do it all."

The management professor tells ComputerWorld:

Trying to do everything can lead to burnout. Trying to live up to some ideal often traps leaders behind a mask of competence, afraid to admit to confusion or to not knowing the answers. But if they don't get input, they can go off course. It can also be harmful because if everybody thinks the leader has all the answers, people don't think for themselves and learn to lead.

Ancona suggests that you know what your strengths are, and find out what you can't do so you can find people to work with who complement your skills. Rather than surround yourself only with people like you, create a balance.

Resources

The Five Myths of Leadership by Mike Griffiths, Quadrus Development gantthead.com, Dec. 11, 2006

From Manager to Leader by Leslie L. Kossoff, Kossoff Management Consulting About: Management

Are Leaders Born or Made? by Bruce Avolio Psychology Today

Leadership Mythology by Gregory P. Smith, Chart Your Course International Business Know-How

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader by Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, Peter M. Senge Harvard Business Review, Feb. 1, 2007

The 'Complete Leader' Is a Myth by Kathleen Melymuka Computerworld, Feb. 5, 2007

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