10 Leadership Myths To Let Go Of!
In my women’s leadership coaching practice, I come across a number of self-limiting beliefs about leadership that hold women back from being their best selves. Here are the ten most common myths – debunked by some gentle reminders for women leaders to step into their power.
“The pandemic prompted a widespread reassessment of the sort of characteristics leaders should display. Much of the world looked to the likes of Jacinda Arden and sobbed, Why can’t we have someone like her in charge? There was a growing realization that ‘femininity’ qualities aren’t a weakness, they’re a strength.” – Arwa Mahdawi
1. “Leadership is predefined and immutable”
Many women believe that the definition of ‘leadership’ was set in stone millennia ago – by great men, for great men. They haven’t considered challenging this heroic model of leadership – one that is authoritative, declarative and paternalistic. Hence, many women, introverts and people from certain cultures struggle to see themselves fitting that concept; exacerbated by their belief that this model of leadership also requires a certain skillset that is authoritative, decisive, and confident. Unfortunately, this prototype doesn’t prioritize masculine and feminine traits required for effective leadership, nor the key relational and empowerment components of leadership that focus on building connection and growth. People of all genders should be focused on collaborative and empathetic leadership at every level of society.
Reminder! Leadership is dynamic, and over the past 50 years, has evolved along a continuum, from heroic to situational to transformational to compassionate and inclusive to androgynous. Shared and distributed models of leadership focusing more on how leadership is exercised between leaders, followers, and the situation have also developed. This evolution opens up a tremendous amount of space for people to lead and represents an important opportunity for women.
2. “Leaders are born leaders”
There is a common misconception of the “born leader”. Underpinning this myth is the belief that leadership is an inborn talent you either have or don’t have. With such beliefs, there is no need to practise or experiment, or even aspire to be a leader, because leadership simply ‘happens’ to the lucky few. People admire those who make things look easy, attributing this to natural ability, as if their ‘effortless’ performance comes without any previous effort.
This leadership myth is also predicated on the idea that leadership is not distributed throughout the population, but refers to an elite. Unfortunately, the belief that leadership is available to only a talented few is a powerful deterrent, preventing too many people from even trying, let alone excelling in leadership.
Reminder! Leadership is a learnable set of skills and abilities developed through choice, learning, study, observation, practise, action, experimentation, failure, resilience, and experience.
3. “Leadership is based on position and formal authority”
Many people hold the mistaken belief that leadership is bestowed by your job-title or rank, narrowly conceiving leadership as a hierarchical position or authority-based role. However, leadership involves your ability to influence others to achieve a common goal or vision – regardless of your position, gender, age, or the space in which you operate. Many visionary leaders are people who started without title, rank or tenure: we only have to look at great leaders such as Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai.
Reminder! Leadership transcends role or hierarchical status. Whether you’re a career professional or a janitor, a CEO or a home-maker – if you influence others towards a goal, you are leading.
4. “Leaders have to know it all”
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear in my practice is that leaders “need to have all the answers.” This becomes even more complicated when a newly-appointed leader is leading a team of technical experts with greater knowledge and expertise than themselves. Add the belief that you need to keep this to yourself and give the impression that you do have all the answers and are on top of everything – no displays of vulnerability and certainly no failures are allowed! The human condition offers a wonderful paradox – we are always whole and we are always incomplete. Leaders are not required to be in control of everything all the time, including having all the answers. Leadership is also about creating space for cultivating and coordinating the actions and answers of other members of the organization or community.
Reminder! Leadership is all about dancing outside your comfort zone. You are NOT expected to have all the answers, in fact; that is not your job! Moving from technical expert or individual contributor to leader requires a new identity and different responsibilities, expectations, skills and competencies. You are expected to be a facilitator of knowledge and people, as part of setting direction and delivering results.
5. “I need permission to lead”
While many might not immediately admit to this, some people hold back, waiting for someone to authorise or invite them to take the lead. Waiting for permission is not leadership. In Harvard Business Review’s Seeing Ourselves as Leaders (Women at Work podcast), Amy Bernstein explains that it took someone else to point out that she was waiting for permission before she recognized the fact. Then she changed her behaviour: ‘instead of asking a question, I would offer my view: “here’s what I would recommend”… recognizing that if this thing we were working on failed, I would be the one to blame’.
Reminder! Don’t wait for permission to lead or for someone to invite you to lead – the opportunities are already there and a true mark of leadership is identifying and acting upon them. Take ownership and take responsibility – for your team, and for their work.
6. “I don’t have much experience / the ‘right’ leadership experience”
Research has demonstrated that girls are treated differently from birth and at school. One study showed that elementary and middle-school boys received 8 times more attention in the classroom than girls did. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to raise their hand if they wanted to speak. And teachers encouraged boys to give answers or opinions far more often than girls (Still Failing at Fairness, by David Sadker, Myra Sadker and Karen Zittleman, 2009). Women themselves can internalize these beliefs that they or their opinion are less important and that a lack of ‘direct’/positional leadership experiences makes them less eligible/qualified to be leaders.
Reminder! Chances are, you have already been leading in the various spaces you show up. Start paying attention to times when you influenced others towards the achievement of a certain goal, or persuaded someone to do something. Building your self-awareness around this is a great way to recognize and see yourself as a leader.
7. “I don’t fit the profile”
As my experience in coaching women confirms, and as Alice Eagly indicates, when the leadership stereotype is aligned with the male stereotype i.e. ‘agentic’ – ambitious, confident, decisive, active, aggressive – female gender stereotypes and leadership stereotypes can be perceived as incompatible. This makes it hard for some women to see themselves as leaders – resulting in other people not seeing them as leaders, either. Therefore, in women’s leadership development, it is important to explore women’s relationship to leadership – helping them to self-identify or see themselves as leaders, so that other people can, too.
Reminder! Leadership is a dynamic concept – it evolves and changes constantly – which means there is room for you and your own leadership style, behaviours and preferences! Also, there is research to suggest that women are more qualified to lead during difficult times than their male counterparts.
8. “My Work Should Speak For Itself”
Many women in my practice hold tightly to a limiting belief that their work should speak for them; that doing good work alone should be enough to get them promoted.
This success strategy likely worked in school and university—good work was rewarded with high grades. But the recipe for success in organizational life is much more complex, and advancement—particularly into leadership positions—calls for a wider mix of skills and competencies, including the capacity to make yourself and your work visible.
Reminder! You need a range of tools in your leadership toolbox, including the abilities to build relationships and network, influence and persuade, and make you and your work visible.
9. “I won’t be liked / I won’t be taken seriously”
Research and experience tells us that women suffer a likeability penalty. Women who demonstrate authoritative behaviour risk being disliked, which complicates their leadership journey. Hence women are often struggling to navigate this likeability trap, believing that likeability is associated with acting in a certain way (i.e.: agreeable, passive, invisible) and/or not doing certain things for worry of being perceived as ‘too’ something (e.g.: bossy, controlling, visible, or attention-grabbing) – both of which can undermine one’s career advancement and leadership development. This is an extra mental load that many women have to carry!
Reminder! Consider rooting your leadership identity and behaviours in your values and goals and remaining flexible. Rather than doing what is expected of you, craft your leadership style and goals consciously. These will be more achievable and lead to greater well-being.
10. “Leadership is about the leader”
The misconceptions that a leader is a lone wolf, hero, white knight or superhero speak to the image of a self-reliant ‘do-it-yourself’ leader who might mobilise others, but ultimately acts alone. This charismatic leader may bring followers on board by his (rather than ‘her’) courageous acts of bravery without help or regard for himself. This leadership myth is not only prevalent but the most overtly gendered myth in terms of portraying a masculine, self-reliant, paternalistic leader. It perpetuates the idea that leadership is a solo performance rather than a team effort.
Reminder! Leadership is a team effort! We work and lead through other people. The best leaders understand that effective leaders do not go it alone. Great leaders know they need the support, engagement, and commitment of others and develop strong relationships and networks to deliver value and impact.
These myths don’t serve us, our organisations, or our society. It’s time to update and/or replace these to create diverse, inclusive, compassionate, and whole-bodied leadership. We want a leadership that can embrace diversity and complexity, empower individuals, organisations and communities, and that can protect and nurture the expansiveness of our resources, including our planet! In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.” This is a time (and opportunity) to lead differently.
Please feel free to download this comprehensive resource Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to strengthen your leadership.
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