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What is Leadership? 4 of the Biggest Myths Uncovered

A man in a suit looking out from an office window

There are over 50,000 leadership books available on Amazon alone, so why does the world need another one? My book, Myths of Leadership was written because there are so many leadership books; 50,000 is a problem, not a solution. 

Yes, there are some excellent resources hidden within that figure, but they are difficult to find amongst the countless 'unicorns' promising their 3-point-plans and strategies for instant success. 

Myths of Leadership is designed to help you find your way through the vast sea of myths and fads to find solace amongst the islands of excellent leadership thinking and practice. I confess, while researching for this book I was blown away by just how many myths are out there making the rounds, so much so that I had trouble limiting myself to the final 50. In this article, I will share 4 big ones to start you on your journey of leadership discovery.

1. Defining leadership

Despite there being 50,000 books on leadership, very few attempt to define what leadership is. This is a problem, because if you do not know what leadership is, you literally do not know what you are talking about. This one myth eliminates over 49,900 books at a stroke.

The reason so few books define leadership is that it is very hard to define. We all know what good leadership looks like, but how would you define it in a way which clearly separates it from management and which is consistent across every type of leader?

The only definition I have which works is one I have stolen from Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state (I have no idea whether this is his original definition or not):

"Leaders take people where they would not have gone by themselves”

This sounds really… boring. But, actually, it is revolutionary.

Kissinger’s definition means that there are plenty of people with grand titles such as CEO or Prime Minister who fail the test: they are failing to take people where they would not have got by themselves. It also means that you do not need to wait until you get 'the corner office' before you start leading. If you lead a team and get them to do things which they would not have done by themselves, you are a leader.

Leadership is not about your title: it is about what you do. You can lead at any level.

2. Knowing the difference between leadership and management

I can now provide you with the only statistically-proven difference between leadership and management: leadership sells more books than management.

I should know, I am an author of books on both, and leadership always outsells management. However, this fact devalues both leadership and management. If everyone thinks they are leading, then that devalues the idea of real leadership, which is exceptional. If no one wants to be a manager, that devalues the vital role of management.

Arguably, managing is harder than leading. As a leader, you have more control over your destiny, direction and resources than any hard-pressed manager.

The more prosaic difference is caught by the analogy of the guru and the kommissar. The guru is the person who has the vision of the Promised Land and leads the revolution. Managers make sure that everyone gets fed and that the trains run on time. In other words, leaders lead the revolution, but managers rule the world before and after the revolution. In many ways, management is more important and much harder than leadership.

3. The leader is the best person on the team

This myth is both common and toxic. It is the leader in the locker room problem: the best player on the team is made the coach and then, inevitably, fails because leading and playing are completely different skill sets. The coach is not meant to score all the goals and make all the tackles. The coach does not even need to be very good at scoring goals or making tackles. Instead, the job of the coach is to recruit and retain the best players; train and motivate them and pick the tactics.

The difference is obvious in sports, but overlooked in business. The leader who thinks they are the best person on the team is toxic because he or she will never believe the team can do as well. This lack of trust means that the leader is reluctant to delegate anything more than the routine rubbish (and the blame) to the team which becomes ever more demoralised.

Although you do not need to be the best person on the team, you have to be able to lead the team: set the direction, build the right team, manage the politics, ensure you have the right resources and support, delegate the right tasks and manage performance appropriately.

4. The success formula for leadership

50,000 books are a testament to our eternal quest for the elixir of leadership. Many books have their own formulas for becoming a great leader, often with successful business people selling a simple promise: read my book and you can be as successful as I am.

The good news (or bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that there is no universal success model for leaders. If there was, the success algorithm would swiftly follow and we would all be out of a job, replaced by a smart piece of AI.

The reality is the leadership is too complicated and ambiguous for AI. Leadership involves multiple questions and problem-solving:

  • How do I deal with conflict and crises?
  • When should I step up and when should I step back?
  • How do I persuade bosses and peers to back my agenda?

What's more, every leader is flawed, even the ones with multiple autobiographies. And that is inevitable. No leader gets ticks in all the boxes. This means you do not need to be perfect to succeed. If you are rubbish at some things, that is OK because leadership is a team sport. So, if you dislike accounting, learn to love accountants because they can do all the things you would rather not do.

However, although you do not need to be good at everything, you do need to be good at something. You need a signature strength which separates you from your colleagues (who are also your deadliest competitors).

All of this means that there is only one leadership formula which actually works. That is the formula which you develop for you and which works for you in your context. But there is a sting in the tail to that recipe. Everytime you get promoted or change your role, your leadership formula has to keep on changing and adapting to your changed circumstances. You have to keep learning and growing.

 

As you can see, there are many myths and stereotypes that surround leadership which continue to remain unchallenged and distort our view of how we think leaders should be. Just by understanding these four myths we are able to see that good leadership does not relate to our job titles and that the notion of the ‘infallible leader’ no longer applies in today’s business world.

The key lesson to learn from these myths is this: leadership styles are created and cultivated by the individual – we can choose to create our own paths and styles of leadership without being held down by other people’s theories.

Myths of Leadership is not just a practical guide to the myths and realities of leadership. It is a book which liberates you to discover the leadership formula which works for you in your context, and it does not even require that you become a superhuman to succeed.