In my experience as a leadership coach for global development professionals and a lecturer, I have discovered that a certain leadership mythology exists. There are so many misunderstandings about leadership, and leadership myths prevalent in society, that this can be off-putting for many. This leadership mythology precludes people from claiming the title of ‘leader’ for themselves. The idea persists that leadership belongs to a select few people who have some magical combination of birthright, DNA, position or title. In essence, many people believe that Leadership with a capital L is only for the select few – and not for them. But this perspective causes limiting beliefs and creates barriers that prevent many capable people from accepting a leadership role.
These leadership myths, misconceptions and false assumptions create obstacles for developing leaders at all levels – and especially for women, in my professional experience. So, let’s take a took at some of these erroneous beliefs about leadership – and start to remove those perceived barriers.
Here are five of the more common leadership myths.
Myth 1: (Super)natural talent
There is a common misconception that leaders have innate superior talent, and that it is merely a matter of searching out those ‘natural leaders’ and finding the right person. This leadership myth is also predicated on the idea that leadership is not distributed throughout the population but refers to an elite. Worse still, some people believe that this ‘ready-to-go’ leader doesn’t require training. Unfortunately, the belief that leadership is available to only a talented few is a powerful deterrent. It prevents too many people from even trying, let alone excelling.
The truth is, leadership is a learnable set of skills and abilities that is gained through development, study, observation, practise, and experience. Becoming a leader also means holding the belief that you can lead. So, strengthen your self-belief and occupy that space. All the coaching and training in the world will not help you if you still maintain a personal belief that you cannot lead. To become a better leader, adjust your mindset and believe that you can be a better leader. You can learn to improve your leadership skills and abilities.
Until most individuals recognize that sustained training and effort is a prerequisite for reaching expert levels of performance, they will continue to misattribute lesser achievement to the lack of natural gifts, and will thus fail to reach their own potential – K Andres Ericsson
Myth 2: Easy for ‘special’ people
There’s an ‘us and them’ mentality that believes that leadership comes easily to ‘born leaders’. People admire those who make things look easy, attributing apparent ease as natural ability which means that somehow, their ‘effortless’ performance comes without any previous effort. Underpinning this myth is the belief that leadership is an inborn talent that you either have or you don’t have and there is no need to practise or experiment (or even aspire to be a leader), because leadership simply ‘happens’ for the lucky few.
The research around leadership and about expert levels of performance tells us that effective leaders practise. What differentiates expert performers from good performers is their dedication to doing something every day to improve. The truth is – the best leaders become the best by working hard and putting in the hours. The acts of doing, experimenting, failing, trying again, learning and application of learning to succeed – all in deliberate practice – are necessary requirements.
Myth 3: Your title says it all
This is the mistaken belief that leadership is bestowed by your job-title or rank and narrowly conceived as a hierarchical position or high-power role. And yet many world-changing movements have been led by people without title, rank or tenure. We only have to look at some of the great new leaders such as Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai. Remember, those who have made it to the top didn’t start there. They learned leadership skills along the way.
Leadership is not about your position in society (or your organisation). It’s about your principles and values, which drive your behaviour and actions. Leadership involves having a vision which you share with others, and which inspires them to act, too.
Myth 4: Only the strengths will survive
This leadership myth focuses on the idea that leadership success is explained by some magical combination of strengths, and that leaders only do what they excel at. What we know from years of leadership research is that leadership is about taking action, and often outside your comfort zone. This includes experimentation, using trial and error. This also implies challenging yourself, working beyond your existing strengths and expanding your full range of capabilities. You can only learn and grow by seeking out new experiences, doing things you’ve never done, making mistakes, and learning from them.
Research has consistently shown that uncertainty and adversity offer opportunities to challenge yourself. This is critical for learning and growth, and is characteristic of leadership experiences that result in personal-best performance.
Myth 5: Me, Myself and I
The misconception that a leader is a lone wolf, hero, white knight, or superhero speaks to the self-reliant, ‘do-it-yourself’ leader who might mobilise others, but ultimately acts alone. This charismatic leader may bring followers on board by his (it is usually ‘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, in terms of a masculine, self-reliant, paternalistic leader. It perpetuates the idea that leadership is a solo performance rather than a team effort.
Building relationships, strong teams, innovating, delivering high-quality responsive services and attracting business is a collective effort, using the strengths and capabilities of everyone in the organisation. Leaders understand that leadership is a team effort, and effective leaders do not go it alone. Great leaders know they need the support, engagement, and commitment of others.
Leadership isn’t a magical or miraculous state that only a rare few people possess or can develop, while all the others – the dispossessed or unworthy – must follow. If it’s possible for one person, it’s possible for you – and for us all. It isn’t pre-destined; nor just for the rich, the expert, the wise, the well-connected, the charismatic, the beautiful, the high-born or the genetically blessed. Leadership is available to everyone.
You already have the capacity to lead – so, act now to fulfil your potential. Let’s get started.
- What do you want your leadership to look like?
- How are you going to further develop your leadership?
- What will you do next, to step into your leadership power?
- Who can help?
If you would like some help with leadership coaching or development, feel free to contact me.
If you like, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.
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