Life can be full of myths.
You’ve likely heard them throughout your life, especially as a kid:
- If you swallow chewing gum, it will stay in your stomach.
- You only use 10% of your brain.
- You can’t swim for 30 minutes after eating.
- If you cross your eyes, they might get stuck.
- If you swallow a watermelon seed, it will grow in your belly.
In the same way, you’ve likely been taught and told many myths about leadership. There’s a lot of things that many believe about leadership that, well, when you get down to it, just isn’t true.
And it’s not one of those “not true but doesn’t really hurt you that much to believe it myths” (such as you shouldn’t swallow gum because it stays in your stomach).
Believing these myths can have drastic consequences on your effectiveness as leader.
What are some of those myths?
Glad you asked. Let’s look at a few.
1. You need to know your leadership style
Last time I looked, the #2 google search related to leadership was leadership styles (leadership holding itself in the #1 position – go leadership!).
One of the most pervasive thoughts about leadership is that you need to know your leadership style to be effective. You need to know your style so you can be the best you that you can be.
Knowing your “style” is as effective at making you a great leader as knowing that when it comes to carpentry, you prefer cutting wood with the big saw (whoo!) over measuring the wood.
Many of what people consider “styles” are just functions of what you should be doing as a leader. You don’t just do what you like, you do what’s needed.
More than that, leadership is about principles, not style. If you know and follow the principles of leadership, then you can adjust your “style” based off it, but principles come before style.
(We dive deeper into this topic in one of our articles on leadership styles here).
2. Just be yourself
Another common leadership myth is that you just need to “be yourself” or be the “authentic you”.
However, as Steve Martin says, if you are your “authentic self”, you would spend your day on the couch watching television.
All joking aside (though he was being serious), the mentality of “just be yourself” can be harmful. First, our “authentic selves” may not be great.
Some people are authentically jerks. It doesn’t mean that they should be that way.
We may be insecure or have bad habits that hurt us. Being “authentic” will hurt us, not help us.
We should focus on being our best selves, being people of intention, not just being “authentic”, especially if that authentic hurts us.
Not only that, as we’ll discuss in the next point, when you are focusing on just being yourself, then you focus on what’s comfortable to you, not what’s needed.
Jim McCormick in The First Time Manager says:
“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.”
Check out this short video by Heather Parady:
3. Follow your strengths
Knowing and working your strengths isn’t bad in itself. There’s truth to the statement of “work your strengths, hire your weaknesses”.
Following that advice in a wise manner can helpful.
However, at the same time, when it comes to leadership (and other areas of life), leadership isn’t about you and what your strengths are. It’s about doing what’s necessary for the mission and your team.
Sometimes you must do or learn in areas that aren’t your strengths because that’s what’s needed.
And, truth is, sometimes things aren’t your “strengths” because you haven’t practiced them yet or because you don’t prefer them.
And sometimes you don’t prefer them because you haven’t practiced and it’s uncomfortable, or you fear the initial learning curve or fear being overwhelmed by it.
Or you don’t like doing something, so it’s a “weakness”, so you don’t do it.
But even if something isn’t your “strength”, you don’t just adjust the mission and goal to fit your strength, you do what’s needed to accomplish the mission.
Leadership isn’t about your strengths; it’s about doing what’s needed.
4. Follow your preferences (If it works for you, then that’s good leadership)
Now, I know, no one out there (that I know of) is specifically stating the phrase “follow your preferences” and making mantras and posters and coffee mugs with it.
However, what you often here (especially on social media) is, “What do you like?” or “What do you prefer?” or “How do you like to lead?”
For example, “As a leader, do you like to lead from the front, from the side, or from behind? What do you prefer?”
And with that, it doesn’t matter what you choose, it’s all “okay”. Whatever your preference, that’s okay. It’s how “you” lead as a leader.
But that mentality is false!
Just because it’s comfortable, just because you like it, just because it’s the way you want to do it doesn’t mean it’s effective.
You can do whatever you want and call it leadership, but it doesn’t make it leadership or mean you will be effective as a leader.
It’s not about your preferences. It’s about principles. And really, this myth (and the ones above it) intertwine together to create the following myth:
5. Leadership is about you
This one basically sums up every myth we covered so for:
Probably the biggest, pervasive myth about leadership that is hurting leaders and organizations today (in dramatic ways) is that leadership is about you.
It’s about your style, your preferences, and your strengths. It’s about what feels good to you. It’s about you being your “authentic” you.
But it’s not. Leadership isn’t about you. And, if you have that mentality, you will always be limited as a leader.
Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about the mission and the team. It’s about you raising yourself up and doing what’s necessary and required to accomplish the mission. It’s not about making the mission or your team cater to you.
One of the best quotes I’ve seen related to this is from Brendon Burchard’s book High Performance Habits. In it he tells the story of how one of his clients, Tim, gives him an ultimatum.
He said they’ve done all the personality tests, strength tests, and all of those things, but those haven’t made him a better leader or caused him to perform better. Then he said this:
“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.”
If you get one thing form this article, it would be this point right here.
The service vs. selfish mentality
Another aspect of the “leadership is about you” myth is discussed in depth in Patrick Lencioni’s book The Motive.
Many leaders have a selfish motive – they see leadership as about them, their career, the rewards, the perks, etc. They may see the position as a reward for all their hard work.
However, when you have that wrong mentality, you will greatly hurt your effectiveness as a leader because you won’t be doing the work or take the actions needed.
You act off your mentality, and your mentality will be off!
However, when you have the service mentality and focus on serving and doing the hard work of leadership, putting the mission and team over yourself, that’s when you can shine as a leader.
6. Leaders are born, not made
When a baby is born, if the fluorescent light is flickering at the right frequency, if there is a full moon, if the mom ate 3 cups of cottage cheese 2 months before the birth day, then that baby is going to be born as a leader.
The heavens will open up and a seal of leadership will be placed on that child.
That’s how leaders are born.
Yeah, no. It doesn’t quite work that way.
Many people are taught and believe that leaders are born, that you have to be born with certain traits or abilities to be a leader.
But that’s just not true. Leaders are made, not born.
As we discuss in our article on leadership versus management, leadership is a skill. It’s a skill made up of subskills.
If you learn the skills, then you can become an effective leader.
Sometimes people think there are certain “traits” that one has, that they must be born with in order to be a leader.
But as Alex Hormozi says in his video on How to Win, any of those traits are really just skills someone can learn. Some may have learned them when they were younger, but it’s something learnable.
For example, charisma is a skill you can learn. Charisma is just a group of actions and behaviors that we sum up with the word “charisma”.
You aren’t born a great leader. It’s a skill that you learn, and like other skills, takes time and practice.
7. Leaders must be charismatic
This is one of the big reasons people think leaders are born. They think you must be charismatic to be a leader, and, with that, charisma is something you are born with.
You either have it or you don’t.
Charisma, as we mentioned earlier, is just a skill anyone can learn. It’s a group of behaviors and actions that you can practice, learn, and get good at.
Not only that, you don’t have to have charisma to be a leader. Many great leaders out there aren’t what people would often call “charismatic”.
In fact, when Jim Collins was researching for his book Good to Great, he found that the majority of the leaders in the best running companies of his study were, in fact, (drum roll, please)… NOT charismatic.
In fact, charisma, if you aren’t careful, can become a liability.
Make sure to check out our article on leaders and charisma here if you want to learn more.
On a related note, you also don’t have to be extroverted to be a leader. There are many great leaders out there who are introverts. Leadership isn’t based on your personality type.
8. Leaders must have all the answers
Sometimes leaders feel they must have all the answers, and they fear when they do not.
Because of that, they put up a front. They pretend they know when they don’t. They don’t ask questions for fear of looking dumb.
They fake knowing answers or give vague answers so they won’t be “found out”.
But all that does is hurt you as a leader. Not only does it keep you from making the best decisions, solving problems faster, and learning, you lose influence and trust with people.
As a leader, you aren’t meant to have all the answers. That’s one reason why you hire and employe capable people on your team.
Great leaders don’t have all the answers. They just work to get the answers. They ask questions.
They don’t let fear of “looking stupid” or a wrong perception of what a leader is supposed to be or look like hold them back.
9. A leadership/management position means people will follow you
Just because you are in a leadership position doesn’t mean you are actually leading or that people will follow you.
Leadership is based on influence, not position.
If you just use your position to make people do stuff, not only will your ability to accomplish be limited, you aren’t really even leading. You are just forcing.
And when you force people instead of lead, you often build resentment and get the bare minimum from them that your positional authority allows.
10. You must have a leadership or management position to be a leader
Sometimes people think that the position equals leadership. They believe that you must have a position to be a leader.
That too, my friend, is false.
I used to think that way. I remember sitting at my desk in one job working away and thinking to myself, “if only I got me a management position, then I would be able to lead.”
I was wrong. Leadership isn’t built from a position – it’s built off influence.
If I had understood that principle and took the time to build influence with others, I could have put myself into a position to lead.
Instead, I just longed for a position where I could have the positional authority over people to get them to do what I thought they should do.
Sigh. (Shaking head at myself).
You don’t need a position to lead. You can lead from any position (or without one) as long as you have influence with people.
If you want to know more about how to build your influence, read this article here.
11. Leadership Is only for the top management
Sometimes I see people referring to leadership as “those at top” and everyone else is just a manager or worker of sorts. The only “leaders” are executives.
That’s one way some try to distinguish leadership and management – by level of position. That’s wrong, though.
As we discuss in our article on the difference between leadership and management, leadership isn’t a position, management is.
Leadership is a skill that is built off influence. Anyone can lead if they have influence and take the time to grow their skill of leadership.
One reason some think only those at top are leaders is because they are the ones who “cast vision”. While, yes, executives are the ones who cast vision for the organization, that doesn’t exclude others from leading.
No where in the definition of leadership does it say that you must be the one to create the vision. Leading is leading whether you created the destination or not.
If you are leading a group on a hike, it’s doubtful you created the destination. It was already there. You are just taking people to it.
Anyone and any position can lead others toward the vision of the organization. They can also create goals or vision based off the main goal or mission for their specific team.
The idea that you must be a top executive in order to be a leader is just plain false.
12. Being in a leadership position means they (or you) know about leadership
One reason I’m not a fan of just interviewing anyone in a top management position about the “secrets” to leadership is that it’s basing it off the assumption that they actually know how to lead.
When you look at the stats of disengaged employees and how companies aren’t lasting as long (companies used to be expected to last 75ish years – now it’s less than 15 years) and other negative factors, it calls into question many people’s ability to lead.
Often people are raised up for technical abilities, not for the ability to actually lead others well.
Being a CEO or in any leadership or management position doesn’t mean you actually know what leadership is or that you know how to lead.
Often people just learn based off what they see from others or from the conventional wisdom (that’s often wrong).
There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about leadership itself and what “kind of leadership” actually makes an effective company.
I want to emphasize that it’s not bad if you or someone else doesn’t really know how to lead yet – as long as you recognize and work toward it.
The problem is when you assume that you are a great leader because your are in a leadership position, or you assume that others are great leaders because they are in a leadership position.
That’s just false.
Check out our article Why You May Not Be As Good A Leader as You Think You Are for more information on this topic.
As a side: this also applies to leadership degrees, whether Educational Leadership or otherwise. Having a degree doesn’t mean you really know leadership or are a good leader.
(See our article Why Increasing Teacher Pay Won’t Solve the Teacher Shortage Crisis to learn more about the leadership issues and problems in our school systems and some steps we can take to solve it.)
13. Leaders must always Be “strong”, unemotional, and never show vulnerability
Sometimes leaders think that they must look “strong”, that they can’t admit mistakes or show vulnerability or weakness.
If they do show vulnerability, then their team will think less of them or it will hurt their influence or ability to lead. People won’t respect them as much anymore.
It’s actually the opposite, though.
Brené Brown discusses this topic a lot in her books about the importance of being vulnerable and human.
You are strong when you can admit your mistakes and work to correct them. You are strong when you speak up when you don’t know or understand.
You are strong when you are vulnerable. That makes you human. That makes you relatable, and it also shows others that they can be human and vulnerable to.
That builds relationships, care, your influence, and, ultimately, your effectiveness as a leader.
14. Leaders must be detached and impersonal
One important way to grow your influence with others is to build relationships and care about them. This doesn’t mean you are BFFs and go hang out with them on Friday nights and watch reruns of Lost (we have to move the island).
What it means is that you care about them as people and their success and you get to know them and learn about them.
The idea that you should be detached and impersonal will just hurt you as a leader. It comes from a false mentality of leadership and who leaders are and what they are supposed to be. If you want to be as effective as you can be, don’t be detached and impersonal, get to know, build relationships with, and care about your people.
15. Leadership is just a one-time piece of knowledge you pick up
While I don’t think many would necessarily say it just like that, that’s often how many act.
When you look at leadership training and classes, they are often one-and-done – taken today, forgotten tomorrow.
There’s no follow-up.
In other cases, people read a few books and think they “know” leadership. They’ve got it down now.
But that’s just not true.
Leadership is a skill, and just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to learn.
Now you know
As the old GI Joe commercials from the 90’s used to say, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”
Now that you know what they myths are, what are you going to do about it?
If you found that you’ve been believing one of them, no big deal. Just work on overcoming it.
The more we grow, the better leaders we become, and the better leaders we come, the better organizations and world we create.
The success of our organizations and world depend on leadership, so let’s be the best leaders we can be.
And if you’ve never seen one of those GI commercials: