Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The three myths of leadership

From Dayle Smith's book "The Eleven Keys of Leadership," in which the author outlines the "three myths of leadership."


The process of understanding leadership in all its human diversity begins by discarding three tired myths about leaders. These myths are hazardous because they attempt to exclude ourselves for the candidate list for leaders. Worse, these leadership myths distort the nature of true leadership.

The Birthright Myth: "Leaders are born, not made."

This myth has deep and tangled cultural roots. The widespread belief that leaders either "have it" or don't from their earliest years springs in part from more than two thousand years of literature emphasizing the role of the hero.

In the great majority of these works of imagination or retold history, the hero is distinguished from fellow men or women by innate superior strength, courage, wisdom, physical attractiveness, and virtue. The present themselves as unique individuals, and essentially mysterious beings -- "above the common herd," in Byron's phrase.

This myth is dangerous when applied to leaders in businesses and other organizations. Many of the most prominent leaders reveal that far from being "naturals" for leadership positions, they had to learn to lead, often by painful lessons of trial and error.

Contrary to the "Birthright Myth," leaders turn out to be remarkably like the rest of us, but with the difference that they know the skills and techniques of leadership.

The For-All-Seasons Myth: "Once a leader, always a leader."

Allied to the Birthright Myth is the inaccurate but widely held belief that certain people are everywhere, at all times, capable of assuming the challenges of leadership, no matter what the circumstances. The Birthright Myth attributes such talent to heritage; the For-All-Seasons Myth attributes it to character and track record.

When leaders are drawn away from their areas of strength and become overcommitted with unfamiliar responsibilities, they neither serve their followers nor themselves well. Leaders can emerge from the unique circumstances of the moment. No myth about a person's past or present status as a leader should keep us from considering others, or ourselves, as potential leaders.

The Intensity Myth: "Leaders are more emotionally intense than the rest of us."

This myth is based on the notion that great leaders feel things more broadly or deeply -- and are more emotionally intense -- than the rest of us mere mortals.

Just as the range of human emotions is extensive, so too this myth takes many forms. Probably the best known or most common is the Anger Myth -- the idea that the boss is mad and we'd better watch our step. But is anger or intense emotion the generally shared characteristic of all or most leaders?

No. The Anger Myth stems from the old belief that most workers hate what they do and must be driven by the stick of anger to put in an honest day's work. In this view, workers are supposedly motivated to do what they hate (their jobs) by the ever-present threat of explosive anger and related punishments.

The adjectives used to describe these bosses are revealing: No-nonsense, hard-driving, impatient, quick-tempered, mercurial, curt, brusque, and moody.

Although jolts of fear can electrify performance in any organization over the short term, it turns out that in most cases the angry leader self-destructs (often to the relief of bruised workers) -- and often leaves considerable wreckage -- if not total destruction -- at his or her passing.

In addition, the brightest and the best want to be treated well. They don't work for long for a boss whose emotional repertoire is limited to anger, sullenness, and sarcasm.

The Intensity Myth extends to emotional intensity in many forms. One notion of leadership holds that the true leader exudes more confidence than ordinary mortals; another suggests that the leader is consistently more optimistic than others or is more passionate about opinions and beliefs.

All such "extraordinary-emotional-state" explanations have been contradicted by more than five decades of research. As a result, the many attempts to define what leaders "are" have been superseded by more objective and successful studies of what leaders "do."

Leaders should not attempt to display one emotional facade (whether anger, confidence, or optimism), as if that front alone would a leader make.