10 Leadership Myths Vs Realities

- 7 min read

Most of us would say we’re familiar with what leadership gone objectively very wrong looks like- whether it’s toxicity in the workplace or violations of the position playing out in our highest institution- but how often are we disappointed in our leaders without being able to truly articulate why? As a leader yourself, do your good intentions frequently not reap the results you’d expected? Are misguided, sometimes unfair, ideas of leadership to blame?

As the role of leader becomes less physically visible and the pressures on teams so varied, the ability to have internal certainty in who you are, where you’re going and how you’re getting there is a game-changer.

This is difficult when it’s so easy for new- and even seasoned- leaders to internalise the many leadership myths that still linger throughout our communities, workplace cultures and personal ideals. The demands of the job- which Humu’s 2022 State of the Manager report found are 10x harder than they were before the pandemic- mean people are arguably even more likely to adopt performance-limiting assumptions, and therefore a damaging mindset, along with their promotion.

If unrealistic ideals are left unchecked in your organisation, you risk a disconnect between what people believe makes them a leader, and what it truly means to be one; especially in a post-pandemic world which proven we can’t depend on a playbook or a one-size-fits-all approach.

In this blog we aim to help you identify possible blind spots you may not know you or your people have, with the following ten myths of leadership- and their corresponding reality: 

Myth 1 – Position determines leadership 

A job title does not a leader make. Leadership skills can be developed in everyone, and leadership is something that everyone can do, no matter their position or job title. Someone can flex their leadership skills on a project, in a single meeting or conversation, or during a conflict situation. Leadership is a way of thinking and behaving, not a job title or position.

The move away from hierarchical structures towards flatter, faster, more centralised decision-making processes accelerated by the pandemic, has increased the opportunities  for individual contributors to flex such leadership skills.

Myth 2 – Leaders are born

 Whilst we fully believe that the skills that make a great leader can be learned and honed, as Stephen R. Covey, our co-founder and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said, “Leadership as an innate or learned quality is a false dichotomy – leadership is a choice.”

What we find inspiring or commendable in leaders – qualities like intelligence, charisma and courage – are often not inherent talents. They are most likely hard-earned statuses that belie a history of persistence, perseverance, trial and error, resilience, learning from mistakes, growth and evolution over time. When we realise that, we realise that the extraordinary is achievable for us all.

Myth 3 – Leaders hold others accountable first

This is true, but it’s not what they should do first. What you should do first is hold yourself accountable. Get yourself to expend energy and resources in the right places. How are you spending your time? Are you putting first things first? Have you set a vision your team want to follow? Are you effectively demonstrating what credibility and integrity looks like? 

Accountability is where power and control meet responsibility- it’s the junction where leaders can either become autocratic or authentic. Guess which style yields the best results?

Every time you think the problem is ‘out there,’ that very thought is the problem.- Stephen R. Covey

Myth 4 – Leaders must be the most knowledgeable 

To be a leader, do you need to know more and be better than everyone else? No. Do you always have to be the hero? No. 

A leader is measured by the results they achieve through others, not just those they achieve on their own, which is commonly a difficult mindset to adjust to.  Technical skills are the wheelhouse of individual contributors, so great leaders are those with the humility and honesty to acknowledge and tap into the unique talent of their team members. In fact, now more than ever the marker of a great leader is the ability to hire those who are better educated, skilled, and more progressive than themselves… and then nurture, trust and stretch them into offering their discretionary effort. Here are 40 back-pocket questions you can ask to focus and unlock the intelligence of your direct reports. 

Myth 5 – Leaders must be extroverts  

On the contrary, introverts can make great leaders. In fact, the extroverted tendency to fill silences and lean into their ‘infectious energy’ can frequently have the opposite, even alienating, effect. 

 Skills like empathy, listening and critical thinking are essential for sensational leadership. Just as extroverts can work on these skills, introverts can develop and nurture certain characteristics that extroverts find come more naturally, like assertiveness. As with everything to do with people, balance and nuance are key.

Myth 6 – Management and leadership are the same

The words may be used interchangeably, but management and leadership have different -yet both essential-  functions. Stephen R Covey said that “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” Leaders determine the strategic direction and structure of a business, whilst managers implement and hone the processes

Another pivotal contribution to the leadership vs. management school of thought came from Harvard Business School Professor John Krotter in his 1990  article What Leaders Really Do, where he simply surmised: Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.”

Organisations who understand and embrace both the stability that management promotes and vision that leadership pioneers- whether that be on a team or company level- are the ones which thrive amidst uncertainty. 

Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.- John Krotter, Harvard Business School Professor

Myth 7 –  Leaders should always put on an optimistic front

This may sound counterintuitive to some, but it is actually common sense. 

As researcher and New York Times best-seller Liz Wiseman explains in our solution Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Ignite Everyone’s Intelligence, even the best intentions can end up accidentally diminishing others. In her research Wiseman discovered that there are nine types of ‘Diminisher’, those who inadvertently shut down the best in people. One of them is The Optimist. This leader’s relentless can-do attitude and confidence in their team to overcome challenges, ends up downplaying how difficult things can be, dismissing valid struggles as trivial, and denying their version of how things are. 

Instead, great leaders should avoid defaulting to an up-beat attitude in the hope it will raise spirits, and seek to understand others’ position in order to express sincere interest in how they are finding a situation. 

Leading with intention starts with understanding how our natural tendencies can take us down the wrong path—how seemingly strong leadership traits can  go awry and become our vulnerability. – Liz Wiseman

Myth 8- Leadership is getting others to do as you tell them

We like to think the days of paternalistic ‘do as I say, not as I do’ leadership are long gone, but it can so easily rear its head amidst the many modern stresses of the day to day. When we experience both external and internal uncertainty, our instinct is to command and control. When you extend trust first relinquish control so that others flourish. When you do this, you connect them to an inner purpose that drives them beyond duty. You create a sense of self-belief so strong that people exceed expectations beyond imagination. 

Myth 9 – Leaders are not vulnerable

There is great strength in honesty. It builds trust. Showing vulnerability, fallibility and the ability to own and then learn from  mistakes is far more important to inspiring trust and respect than always being right, or never showing a human side.

If your company culture creates a pressure to overachieve and a constant need to prove yourself, then leaders overcompensate by leaning into courage a little too hard. They mistakenly magnify their capacity, downplay problems and can even lose the relatability and sensitivity that all great bosses have in common. 

Myth 10 – Great leaders are always in the spotlight 

Of course, there are times when leaders are front and centre of a business. And that’s often where they need to be – gardening inspiration and that undeterminable “presence” of a great leader. But leaders must also be agile and humble, able and eager to turn the spotlight on others. Read our previous blog, Why True Success Happens When You Lead From the Sidelines.