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Common Myths About Leadership: Debunked

Common Myths About Leadership: Debunked

Managing expectations versus reality for those in leadership roles

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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As with any career opportunity, a new leader brings certain expectations to their newly-achieved role. These expectations can often be plagued by common myths. To help new leaders better prepare and acclimate to their position, a few of the most common and important myths about leadership are debunked in this article.

Myth #1: The leader sits at the top of the organization and everyone serves at his pleasure.

While it is true that most organizational charts show the leader at the top of the page with ever-expanding layers of employees reporting upwards, the reality is that the leader’s success is wholly dependent on the work of those within the organization he leads. It can be more instructive to picture that organizational chart inverted, with the leader at the bottom of the page supporting the increasing layers of contributors up to the top of the page. The role of the leader is to set direction and strategy, provide the right working conditions and materials, make sure all employees have the training and tools they need, and then get out of the way and let the team do their work. Leadership is more about facilitation than power. The leader leverages her impact by enabling others to contribute more effectively.

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Myth #2: The most important leadership qualities are decisiveness, focus, vision, and similar attributes that connote strength.

Google “characteristics of a good leader” and you will often find a list of the types of “strength” qualities noted above. Qualities such as decisiveness and focus are indeed important characteristics of effective leaders, but none of these “action” qualities will be most effective unless the leader also embodies the most important leadership attribute: humility. While the perception of power can drive many to want leadership roles, what really should drive a leader is the awesome responsibility of the position as it relates to those depending on you to make decisions that impact their well-being. The bigger the leadership role, the greater the number of people impacted by your decisions. 

Humble leaders don’t lead through fear and intimidation. They lead through motivation. Employees respect him. And he’s earned their respect, in turn, by respecting and valuing them for what they bring to the table. The difference between a good business and a great business is that extra bit of effort an employee chooses to give—that extra bit of attention to a report; that extra bit of time with a customer on the phone; that extra question they ask themselves about the quality of their work that causes them to choose to spend more time to get it right. People want to work for the humble leader and give that extra bit of effort because they know he will notice. They know he will say “thank you”—and mean it.

Humility is what causes a leader to recognize that she doesn’t have all the right answers all the time. She has the confidence to seek true counsel, not just confirmation of her positions. The humble leader has no problem finding and retaining strong employees. When something goes wrong, the humble leader does not ask who is at fault, but rather, “what can we learn from this?” And the humble leader does not blame “conditions outside of my control” for her struggles, but rather asks, “what can I do differently next time?” She does not shirk personal responsibility and accountability. The humble leader is not “soft.” She will discipline as needed and do so quickly—the whole organization is depending upon her to do just that. Ask yourself which type of leader you would prefer to work for, then be that type of leader yourself.

Myth #3: A leadership position will give you the authority to make decisions within a defined purview. There is more “freedom to act.”

This myth is true to a point. An individual contributor has limited authority, usually confined to the technical aspects of carrying out their role. Strategic direction, priorities, and even resources are provided by others, while the individual is limited to providing input and requests. A new leader will indeed find himself in the position of having authority to make decisions that he previously only had input into, but he will quickly realize that there are new sets of restrictions that he couldn’t see before. Yes, he can make decisions around a capital purchase, for instance, but now he is bound by a budgetary limitation set by others. He can set program priorities now, but he is bound by a business strategy that he may have had input toward, but did not develop. 

A cruel twist of fate is that the more senior a leader becomes, the more difficult her decisions also become, because she is now bound by layers of constraints that are even more complex. While a more junior lab leader’s decisions are bound by the constraints set by their functional boss, those constraints are mostly within the realm of the lab: project priorities, capital purchases, technical hires. Her boss, though, makes those decisions around laboratory management bound by the constraints imposed by business management, customer/market dynamics, legal and environmental considerations, and other constituencies. The decisions may have greater impact, but the degrees of freedom are more constrained.

Myth #4: The leader can count on the competence, follow through, and personal responsibility of other leaders he works with.

This “myth of competence” can be a hard one to get past since it is natural to believe that those around you who carry themselves with such confidence are truly as capable and dependable as they would like you to believe. The hard truth is that no one is as good as you think they are. Don’t assume people do their homework; don’t assume they understand what you are trying to communicate; don’t assume they know what they are talking about. 

This is not meant to be a cynical view. By remembering this rule of thumb, the leader will remember to take his time to fully develop and communicate his thoughts and ideas. He will also not hesitate to ask questions to make sure actions are completed and look for ways he can help. Most people like to project confidence for fear of being considered incompetent, but there is a lot of daylight between “needing a little support” and “incompetent.” Ask those questions! Remember that this rule also holds true for yourself. Don’t overestimate your own capabilities (see myth #2 above). 

While the realities of leadership are different from common myths, the pathway to effectiveness is clear. Stay humble. Surround yourself with people who are strong where you are not. Remember that you serve the organization and that their success is your success. Know your own limitations to best exercise the power within your purview.