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So You Think You Can Lead?

Understanding three myths about leadership

 In a recent meeting between two leadership organizations, a huge rift between theory and practice was identified.  In theory, we might understand that leaders work together to create a better future.  Yet, the meeting clearly identified the lack of relationship/partnership between “leaders” of leadership organizations within the same city.  If leadership organizations can’t practice what they preach, how can you expect an average company executive to practice what they preach. 

On a national level, a recent article in US News & World Report found a significant leadership deficit in our society.  A poll by this news agency found that Americans believe that “nearly 2 out of 3 believe their leaders have been corrupted by being in power… 73% believe that leaders are out of touch with the average person”.  In another prestigious journal - the Ivey Business Journal, an article reported the growing toxic leadership in organizations. This rift between theory and practice begs a fundamental question – do we really understand what leadership is?

If you had to define leadership, how would you define it?

Academicians have published countless theories and studies about leadership.  Yet, the concept still eludes many people.  Leadership as a concept is full of myths that needs dispelling.

         Common Leadership Myths – Great Man

One common myth is that leaders are responsible for the start, the middle and the end of any venture.  For example, many management texts state that organizational leaders are responsible to set goals and create the strategies to achieve them.  In your home or business, how does that belief play out?  Who do you believe should be setting goals for your organization?  So if the desired end is met, leaders are celebrated; if the desired end is not met, then leaders are blamed.  One basic question you can ask yourself – are you capable of creating effective goals and are innovative enough to create some ways to reaching those goals?  Of course you are.  When someone else sets a goal for you, it is not necessarily meaningful to you.  Why should you give your invaluable time for a goal you had no input on.  Leaders are not taskmasters.  They might hold specific positions of authority, but it does not mean that they create meaningful goals for those involved. 

         Common Leadership Myths – Leadership Traits

One of the most common beliefs about leadership is the trait theory.  Many believe leaders have specific traits and behaviors.  If you look at many popular books, they carefully illustrate specific traits and behaviors of leaders.  In order to be a leader, you must acquire certain traits.  Sometimes, they even tell you how to take on those behaviors.  On the contrary, research has debunked the trait theory for many years.  Stogdill, a well respected leadership researcher, conducted 120 trait studies and found that traits alone do not identify leadership.  They’re often only the tip of the iceberg. People looking to become leaders through the acquisition of specific traits may not reach their goal.

        Common Leadership Myths – Outcome/Business Focus

One final common misconception about leadership is the result of one’s leadership as a business measure.  Wall Street and much media tend to only look at the outcome of businesses and decisions, rather than the process.  A brilliant critical thinker might ask - What is success?  Who defines success?  In business, Wall Street might be a major player in looking at the numbers for determination of success.  Yet, in reality, the profits have only one purpose – to serve stockholders.  As leaders, if you focus on the outcome of an event or decision, the fear of failure will increase stress.  In some cases, such as the infamous Lucent Technologies, a high focus on the result pushed people to falsify numbers in order to “save” their jobs.  Where is the leadership in that? Focusing on an end point is only one perspective.  Often, it misses the possibility of the lesson that can be learned, which drives a long term sustainable success.

 Leadership does not have to be about position, specific behaviors or a specific outcome.  Consider that leadership is not about the starting point or the endpoint.  Instead, leadership is about the intention you possess when making a decision.  People are at the center of leadership, not money which is a sustainable result of people.

Take a moment to reflect on your definition of leadership.  Once you’ve define what it means to you, look at your behaviors – is there a rift or are you in alignment?

 By Dr. Ted Sun 

February, 2006

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