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.

Older Comments

Business leaders are simply humans and need to manage them selvs to perform! To 'mangae performance' is not enough anymore.

Torill Elise Iversen Norway

Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. It's great to abolish some of the myths of leadership, especially when people think leadership is simply equated to management and control. Is leadership about people or performance or both? Management is about performance - is it why we need managers? Leadership is about inspiring people so the people working 'under' such leadership could manage and lead themselves. For managers, would it be easier to manage performance? Would it be far more difficult to 'manage' people? Leadership is doing the right things, and management is doing the things right. So if we talk about leadership, how about involving the people around the 'leaders' so they could do the right things (not just the performance, but respecting the people, listening and responding to their needs, and motivating them to achieve the goals). So leadership is a leader to be, an ongoing empowerment of the people, a behind the scene supporter and encourager, a mentor, a team leader, and most important develop the 'followers' to become the leaders, so everyone shines and achieves. May be if we rethink about Manage = control. Lead = influence and inspire. Then, the best business leaders are not only the best managers, but best achievers. John

Sui Fai John Mak http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com

I agree that leaders don't need to be inspirational or visionary and that great leaders accomplish great things, but I am having a hard time seeing how we can define leadership in terms of the work leaders do. For me leadership means showing the way for others, either through explicit advocacy or by example. This definition leaves the style question, the means of influencing people, completely open. Thus leaders CAN be visionary, but they can also set a quiet hard working example. They can influence through presenting hard evidence, even aggressively. In any case, leadership is surely about moving people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise. My definition has the virtue of being compatible with bottom-up leadership because it says nothing about role. That is, to show the way for others, you could be a front-line employee without even the desire, let alone the ability to be a formal or informal leader in your team.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto, Canada

Mitch, I believe our perspectives are actually quite close. The following part of your definition of leadership is telling: 'That is, to show the way for others.' I'd argue that showing the way for others is a common task of leadership - not leadership itself. Analogous to this is that hitting a baseball does not define the game of baseball. It is an essential activity within the game, not the game itself. 'Showing the way' enables the leader to lead the group to accomplish great things, or protect group values, or use resources cost-effectively. Everything the leader does, whether it is showing the group the way, or allowing others to do this task (bottom-up leadership), is designed to accomplish the three criteria of leadership performance.

I do not agree that 'leadership is surely about moving people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise.' I believe that virtually all people want to work hard and achieve great things with their groups. More often than not, there are obstructions that prevent people from achieving what needs to be achieved. The best leaders I have seen restructure the environment so that motivated and talented people are not obstructed from doing what is right and what is needed - and that's what people almost always want to do.

John Roulet

Thanks for replying to my comment John, but I'm afraid I don't agree with your statement that our 'perspectives are actually quite close.' My fault for any misunderstanding - not enough space in a comment to spell out fully what I mean. Briefly, you are describing leadership in the conventional way - as a role. Much of what you say in your reply and your article is, in my view, the usual mixture of leadership and management. For me, leadership is an activity that is independent of role and of management. Thus, as I see it, leadership does nothing more than promote a better way, it sells the tickets for the journey, management drives the bus to the destination. Thus, in my odd world, everything to do with implementation is management, not leadership.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto, Canada

In my last comment I should also have replied to your disagreement with my statement: 'leadership is surely about moving people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise.' I maintain this claim because the word 'influence' by definition means to induce people to do something they wouldn't do otherwise. Clearly you can't be said to have influenced someone to do something he or she was going to do anyway. Selling is also a form of influence. If you buy something without being sold to, then no selling has taken place. Similarly, if you act without being influenced (not led to act) then no leadership has happened. You see, this view is consistent with my idea that leadership is an act of influence, not a role. Your critique of my comment shows that you see leadership as a role. This is where we fundamentally disagree.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto, Canada

It's not as though our leaders fly in from another planet; they come from among us.

If there's a problem with the quality of leadership, might it be because there's a problem with the quality of *people*?

Milan Davidovic http://altmilan.blogspot.com

Interesting comments and responses about leadership and management. Whilst I work primarily in the field of workplace bullying given advice to victims, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors, I have been surprised by the number of comments regarding the lack of leaders and leadership, and managers and management, and the introduction of a new type of 'manager' - the administrator. The administrator seems neither interested in leadership or management, but more interested in undertaking a process type approach to getting the job done. In other words, getting the paper work done, going to meetings, and avoiding decisions about performance, meeting organisational goals and generally avoiding workplace conflict. As a result of this 'administrator' type role, some individuals left to their own devices, spend more time generating conflict and disharmony, when leadership and management is needed to get people on track. Again the Pareto principle comes into play and whilst the majority of employees seem to be able to get on with their their job, the minority cause such a disruption, that the 80 per cent soon become distracted and work at less than optimum. There seems to be a lot of finger pointing and interpretation about who is a leader, what makes a leader (or even a follower), and even a lack of commitment to developing leaders and managers. Someone who is good at achieving results or outcomes can be promoted to a 'managerial' position but lack people skills and then the downhill slide begins. Practical experience tells me that when performance is not managed, people start to question whether or not they are really valued (by their manager and their organisation). Unfortunately the tendency to promote individuals to managerial positions (in some organisations) based on their ability to achieve outcomes at any cost may in the long run, not be in the best interests or the organisation or the individual.

Bernie Althofer Brisbane, Australia

Management and leadership have to return to basic. Know you business and you will be able to take the right decisions. Too many leaders “jump” around from one business to another without knowing the core task. You have to be very talented to be successful in any position in any branch without knowing the basic of your business. Very few are that talented.

Tore S Roen Oslo Norway

Educational levels have increased immensely and more and more companies depend on knowledge workers who hold the knowledge needed to solve more and more complex problems. You can't manage a knowledge worker in the same way you manage the traditional employee paid to execute a task in a taylorized work environment. Knowledge workers will not accept being treated as simple contributors and have higer expectations in terms of the way they are asked to contribute. So you may consider that leadership is about performance and indeed it is but to get performance from knowledge workers, you have to lead them to deliver more, you have to create the environment which will optimize the skills knowledge workers possess, you have to deliver vision, communicate the vision, get the commitment and engagement of such knowledge workers. If you don't, you will get disengagement. According to many studies on engagement, 70% of employees are disengaged and only do the minimum. You can't force engagement, unless you increase vastly the numbers of managers at first level management to check and control.

Noone Joseph Paris

Hmmm . . . myth #1 describes Steve Jobs pretty well, only in reality.


I'm curious what you would say about the new theories about leadership that are emerging, such as Reflective Leadership, or participatory leadership in which everyone is considered a leader of a different leadership style.