Abolishing the myths of leadership

May 28 2015 by John Roulet Print This Article

Many of us have tired of books, articles, and discussions about leadership. After all, there is so much competing and confusing information in the public domain about leadership. On top of that, today's leaders seem to be getting worse instead of better. But we can't just give-up and let the confusion continue; we need great leadership now more than ever.

Is there any new approach to leadership that can really drive the kind of change and success organizations so desperately crave? The short answer is no, but the good news is there is something much better than a new approach - an incredibly old approach.

This approach has been around at least since our ancestors lived in caves on the savannah. Once we eliminate those myriad myths about leadership that have worked their way into the popular business culture and become widely accepted as truths, we can rediscover real leadership.

Let's start by obliterating two of those leadership myths and replacing them with ancient and indisputable truths.

Myth 1: Leadership is Visionary and Inspiring

We tend to associate leadership with individuals who are effective communicators, visionary and inspirational. Our view of leadership, however, becomes hopelessly distorted when it is based on such personal characteristics.

Leadership is about work, not personality and social behaviors. As in any work endeavor, an individual's personal traits are an entirely different issue from his or her performance. The common characteristics associated with leadership are appealing, but they are not synonymous with leadership. This mistake, which is made over and over again, results in the confusing, mediocre and poor leadership we have become so accustomed to in business, government and the military.

So what is leadership? Leadership is simply quality of the leader's performance. Just as workmanship is the quality of the worker's performance, leadership is the quality of the leader's performance.

There are three components to leadership and these enable us to determine the quality of leadership:

  1. Accomplishment: The leader's performance must result in the achievement of something of value.
  2. Cost-effective use of resources: The leader must use resources wisely.
  3. Adherence to values: What the leader does and achieves must not violate what the group holds as important (i.e., values).

The correctness of the criteria presented above becomes clear when we compare them to the current leadership paradigm. That paradigm defines leadership as being visionary, inspirational, etc. History has provided us with countless leaders who were visionary and inspirational and possessed many of the traits commonly associated with great leadership. Many, however, were colossal failures as leaders.

But those leaders who accomplished great things, used the resources they commanded wisely, and adhered to their group's values were great leaders. It's indisputable and that is what makes these leadership criteria correct.

Leadership criteria based on personality traits and social skills simply do not measure the work of a leader. Organizations wanting to take a take a realistic and optimally effective approach to leadership must first embrace a new leadership paradigm. That paradigm establishes the criteria for organizational leadership as accomplishment, cost-effective use of resources and adherence to group values.

Myth 2: Business Leaders Manage People

Cult leaders manage people; business leaders manage performance. Skilled business leaders do not try to manage personalities and emotions as cult leaders do, because skilled business leaders know they do not have the time or psychotherapeutic skills to do so.

Research indicates that certain personality characteristics, such as conscientiousness, are associated with higher levels of performance. That, however, does not mean that supervisors have the time or skills to instill such traits in employees. Supervisors' attempts to increase organizational performance through pseudo-psychological interventions are not only flights of fantasy, but they also are ethically-questionable.

There are some jobs, such as office receptionist, that require the incumbent to offer friendly greetings and to be polite. It would therefore seem reasonable to expect individuals in such jobs to be cheerful. Cheerful, however, is an emotion or a personality trait; it is not a performance. Regardless of a receptionist's emotional state, the job requirement to offer friendly greetings and to be polite does not change.

When you consider that at any given time, many of us will be dealing with issues such as divorce, death, financial problems, consequently we may not feel cheerful or any of the other emotions a manager many want us to feel. That, however, does not necessarily prevent us from performing our jobs with great effectiveness. We humans are very adept at performing well in spite of our emotions and personalities. Often, business leaders' attempts to impact employees' emotions and personalities result in confusion, frustration and diminished performance.

The work of the business leader is to ensure that those behaviors and outcomes that drive optimal and sustainable organizational performance occur. To achieve this, the successful leader structures the work environment so that it fosters desired performance and eliminates undesirable performance.

Such a work environment enables talented and skilled employees to perform with optimal effectiveness. Those without the requisite talents and skills are still wonderful people, but perhaps they are a better fit for the company's competitors.

When leaders try to effect the emotions and personalities of employees (i.e., "messing with the heads"), that is managing people. When the leader structures the work environment so that it is fertile ground for employee success, the leader is managing performance.

By starting to question these, and other the myths and misconceptions about leadership, business leaders and organizations today take the first step toward truly great leadership.


About The Author

John Roulet
John Roulet

John Roulet is the author of The Supervision Solution and an expert on performance and supervision. He currently works with a leading global management consulting firm.