Why “Just Be Yourself” Is Bad Advice For Leaders

Why “Just be yourself” is bad advice for leaders

One piece of advice that some leaders hear is this: Just be yourself.

And, often, the intent of that advice is good. People say it with a good heart. There’s just one problem with it:

It’s wrong.

Now, to clarify, you shouldn’t try to be someone else, in the sense that, you try to match their personality, humor, etc. That part is legit (though you can learn good principles or practices from others, though).

However, when you tell leaders to “just be yourself”, especially new leaders, you could be hurting them, not helping them.

How is that the case? Let’s find out.

First, we need to understand what leadership is built on

There’s a lot of confusion today about leadership. Even the concept of what leadership is (and how it is defined) is often confused.

Then you get to all the leadership vs. manager memes and confusion that goes with it there  – it gets crazy.

And, like it is in many areas, conventional wisdom about leadership is often wrong, or it’s just not enough.

Part of all this confusion is because of this aspect of conventional wisdom: the idea that leadership revolves around you.

Much of the content today is about discovering yourself, your style, and your preferences. People define leadership how they want it to be, not what it is.

Here’s the crux of it all. Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about you being what you need to be for the team.

Leadership isn’t whatever you want it to be. Like any skill, it’s based on certain principles. The principles come first.

If you have the principles, you can act and adjust based on those principles. Without them, it doesn’t matter what you do, you will fail.

You can define leadership as whatever you want it to be, you can do whatever you want to and call it leadership, but it’s not really leadership and you won’t be effective as a leader.

Because it’s “you” doesn’t make it legit, right, or effective.

Quick Summary: Leadership is built on principles. It’s not about you, it’s about you being what you need to be for your team. It’s about serving the mission and others, not serving yourself. 

People gravitate toward what’s comfortable (and what’s comfortable may not be good or what’s needed)

People gravitate toward what’s comfortable

When you say, “Be yourself”, generally people gravitate toward what’s comfortable. This can especially be true for newer managers or leaders.

For example, you may love building relationships with people, so that’s what you focus on as a leader.

You love jumping in and solving problems, so you dive into that.

You may not like the effort of gathering input from people or coaching others, so you avoid that because it’s not comfortable. It’s not “you”.

This is also where much of the styles and preference mentality comes from. Someone like coaching, they are more comfortable with it, so they are the “coaching style”.

However, it’s not about adjusting leadership to fit you, it’s about you being what you need to be for the situation.

As Jim McCormick and the others said in The First-Time Manger:

“You select the appropriate role based on the situation you’re in and the objectives that you want to accomplish. Often, new managers are given the advice to ‘just be yourself.’ This is actually bad advice. It will prevent you from using the different roles that will make you a successful and effective manager.”

(If you want to know more about the difference between a leader and a manager, check out this article.)

If I’m a carpenter I may love cutting wood. It may be my preference. It may be what I’m good at. However, if that’s all I focus on, I won’t be an effective carpenter.

Leadership isn’t about doing what’s comfortable. It’s about doing what’s needed (and growing to be able to do what’s needed). There’s a difference.

Leadership isn’t about doing what’s comfortable. It’s about doing what’s needed (and growing to be able to do what’s needed). There’s a difference. ~ Thomas R. Harris Click To Tweet

Just because you lean a certain way doesn’t mean it’s good

Just because you naturally lean a certain way doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

Some people are natural jerks. They lean toward being a jerk. It doesn’t mean that’s healthy for them (or others) and should be that way.

Some people are bad listeners or egocentric maniacs. It doesn’t mean they should keep being that way.

Sometimes we lean a certain way because of our ego. Sometimes we may lean toward a direction because of insecurity.

For example, someone may be more “bossy” and want to tell everyone what to do because they are egotistical, or they are insecure and don’t want to show that they don’t know everything.

You may be someone who easily gets irritated and annoyed when you must explain something to someone. That may be the way you are right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. If you want to be an effective leader, that’s an area you will need to grow in.

If you have areas in your personality that aren’t healthy or helpful, you don’t just keep doing them because that’s who you are. You grow to get better.

Your strengths sometimes are not enough (and you can’t always delegate them)

Your strengths sometimes are not enough (you can’t always delegate them).

Sometimes leadership messages today focus on knowing your “strengths”. You should know your strengths so that you can focus on doing them so that you can be the best leader you can be doing what you are “good” at.

While it can be helpful and good to know what your strengths are, knowing your strengths alone will not make you a great leader by itself (remember, principles come first).

Not only that, if there is something you need to be able to do to be a great leader (such as being able to communicate and listen well), just because it’s not your strength doesn’t mean you should avoid doing it.

Instead, learn and grow in those areas.

Yes, in some areas, you can delegate what you are weak in, and that can be a wise thing to do. But for skills that are required for effective leadership, you must learn them, even if it’s not your preference or strength.

For example, you need to know how to hold people accountable, deal with conflict, communicate well with others, show appreciation, and more.

You can’t just delegate it all away or ignore it because it’s not a “strength”. It’s something you need to grow and learn in.

And, truth is, many times something isn’t your strength because you just haven’t learned or practiced it yet!

Saying “just be yourself” or “follow your strengths” can sometimes ignore the need for growth or that you may not be what you need to be – yet. Leadership is an ongoing process of growth.

Leadership is an ongoing process of growth. ~ Thomas R. Harris Click To Tweet

Leadership is not about you or you “being yourself”; it’s about you being what you need to be for the mission and your team

Brendon Burchard in his book High Performing Habits tells the story of how a client named Tim basically gave him an ultimatum because he wasn’t reaching the performance he wanted. Tim said:

“But, look, we know my supposed ‘strengths’ and they’re still not helping me get ahead. My natural tendencies don’t do the job. As a leader, I have to be honest – sometimes it’s just not about who I am, what I prefer, or what I’m naturally good at. It’s about me rising to serve a mission, not the mission bowing down to match my limited strengths.”

Leadership isn’t about you lowering the mission to fit you and your preferences. It’s about you being what you need to be to accomplish the mission.

It’s not about “being yourself”; it’s about “being your best self” and doing what’s required, and that requires change and growth.

It’s not about you doing what’s comfortable or focusing only on your “strengths”. It’s about you raising yourself up and growing yourself to lead the best you can.

Let’s not focus on just “being ourselves” but focus on growing and being what you need to be the best leader you can be.


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