What is good leadership? Ask Google and you’ll get about 8 million hits, but considering the parlous state of world leadership right now those 8 million hits aren’t helping us lead on the world stage. And in business too we’re all searching for that mystery ingredient that will make our leaders effective. Leadership myths are everywhere but chasing after these myths of leadership is having the reverse effect and actually making it harder for us to lead.
Our attachment to the myths of leadership is stopping us from realising that leadership is actually (spoiler alert) very simple and something we can all do every day.
Here’s my take on those myths and how we can do leadership better.
Leadership Myths #1: There are models you can learn to become a good leader
Now this is a tenacious myth and leadership models abound. Just a few examples: there’s the trait theory of leadership, the behavioural theory of leadership, situational leadership theory, and there are numerous examples of leadership styles. And I can understand why – we think leadership is difficult and if there’s a model we can just learn it, and hey presto we can lead.
But we don’t become leaders via a PowerPoint presentation on situational leadership theory, or any other model. Some people will say you just need to find the right combination of models, mix them up a bit, add water and stir, and you have your own leadership model. But even that’s way more complicated than it needs to be.
The truth is that leadership isn’t something you need to learn at all. You’re already doing it, every day of your life when you lead yourself.
And that takes us to the second myth of leadership:
Leadership Myths #2: You have to learn how to lead
I’ll run the risk of repetition here… leadership isn’t something you have to learn. Now that might sound strange, and a little bit scary. It sounds like it goes against that old saying that leaders aren’t born they’re made, and if you can’t learn leadership how do you get to be a good leader?
Now I’m not advocating that leaders are born not made. But that’s because I don’t think that leaders are some special species set apart from the rest of us. And for good reason, when we go down that road we end up with authoritarian leaders like Trump.
No, what I’m saying is you already know how to lead.
Yes, that’s right – you already know how to lead. So what’s the point of any leadership development work (including my own)? What does it actually do? Well, for the work I do it’s about giving people insight and the space to practice what I call leadership mindset and behaviours. Instead of being a skill to master, leadership is innate in all of us. The problem is that it gets buried underneath all the leadership models we think we need to learn.
Leadership Myths #3: Leadership in business is different than leading yourself in life
Of course we need leadership in the workplace, but thinking that leadership in business is separate from how you lead yourself in life is part of the unhelpful view of leading we’ve created.
Leadership is about leading yourself first and foremost.
And the opportunities to lead yourself don’t just come up at work, they’re all around you and in every decision you make. Whether you’re in the weekly sales meeting or trying to figure out how to talk to your teenage kids. Because what leadership means is you being you and giving other people permission to be them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the boardroom or your living room.
And when you do that and you give people a chance to voice their ideas. You give yourself the chance to hear those ideas and you create an environment where people can perform at their best.
Do that enough and it doesn’t just change the way we are at work. It changes the way we interact with our families, friends and everyone we meet. Do that enough and personal leadership has the power to change your workplace and the world.
And that brings me to the last myth of leadership – that it’s all about skills.
Leadership Myths #4: Leadership is a skill
For my money this is the most unhelpful leadership myth out there. It ties into the idea that we can learn leadership from models and theories. The reason we can’t learn leadership as if it’s a skill is because leadership is a mindset. A leadership mindset is one that doesn’t want to conform because it’s the easiest path to follow. It’s about making the decision to act, to make a choice, to speak out. Or sometimes to stop speaking and listen.
Yes, that’s something you can practice, but a mindset isn’t a skill you can learn from a model of leadership.
Anyone can be a leader in their own life. Malala Yousafzai was an 11 year school girl in Pakistan when she took the decision to keep going to school despite Taliban threats on her life. Malala had a leadership mindset and she led herself first when she defied the Taliban by going to school. Most of us in the developed world are lucky enough we don’t face those kind of challenges on a daily basis. But we can still take those decisions that are challenging for us to keep developing our leadership mindset.
And because leadership starts with ourselves, we can’t lead anyone else until we make the choice to lead ourselves.
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