5 Major Myths about Leadership


Quite a while ago I was waiting in line at a gift store and, as usual, failed to heed my mother’s ever present advice by not keeping my hands to myself. I began picking up and reading coffee mugs from the display by the counter. You know what I mean, those funky ceramic numbers that have drawings on them usually associated with some phrase or words of advice? One that caught my attention had a crusty old cowboy on one side and a phrase on the other that said, “There were a helluva lot of things they did not tell me when I hired on with this outfit.” Yep, you guessed it, I could identify with that little cup and yep… I bought it.

Just like that coffee mug I came to understand there were some “things they never told me” when it came to being an effective leader. So here are my five major myths about leadership that could be added to the mug collection.

Myth #1. Leadership just happens.
Effective leadership takes forethought and preparation. While at times we can enjoy some spontaneous successes however being able to purposely repeat those successes  is much more desirable. Preparing for your role as a leader is just as important as any technical skill you developed as a individual contributor. Preparation is not just studying aspects of leadership but involves seeking out and observing effective leadership in action and, most importantly, making the transition from focusing on yourself to now focusing on others.

Myth#2. Leadership comes with position.
Just because a person has been appointed or promoted into a supervisory position does not mean they are a leader. We see examples nearly every day in our news coverage of people in a “leadership position” and yet exhibit nothing resembling true leadership abilities. Not all followers or employees in public agencies willingly, much less enthusiastically, follow their superiors. Some leaders erroneously believe that since they are the “leader” what they do is leadership.

Myth#3. Leadership comes with authority.
The effectiveness of a true leader is dependent on the willingness of the followers. Sure we can bark out orders and some followers will jump for a while however after a short time authoritarians often find themselves very “understaffed”. A mentor of mine always said, “A leader without followers is just a person out taking a walk”. Utilizing positional authority is less effective over the long term and costs leaders a great deal of credibility.

Myth#4. Leadership is knowing one’s job well and setting a good example for others.
This one might be confusing at first but think about it. I often see people being promoted because they excel at worker job tasks but then struggle in their leadership positions because they lacked the right motivations, traits or skills needed for effective leadership. The more technical skill we have regarding the work that our followers do the more likely we are to micro-manage them. Leaders should set a good example no doubt but that example should focus on the larger aspects of things like integrity, support for the agency mission, and professionalism. Effective leaders understand that they role model for their followers everything from showing up to work on time to how they treat others.

Myth #5. Leadership primarily involves telling followers what to do.
The more directive we are the less we enable our followers to think for themselves. I want employees who can problem solve, think critically and see the bigger picture. I do not have time to follow them around and give every little direction for them to be productive. Most genuine followers do not want that either. Sure there might be some who prefer lots of direction because when it does not get done who gets the blame? The leader usually does because the followers claim the directions were unclear or not complete. Get the followers involved and thinking for themselves about how they need to contribute to the overall mission of the organization.

Sound off if you have more to add so, if nothing else, perhaps we can avoid a flash mob at the coffee mug display in the gift store!

Chuck Bayne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Christine Burke

Chuck – these are all really great points. Being a manager is hard and takes constant work and tweaking. And unfortunately, there is usually little training done with new managers. The top 2 things I try to focus on are making sure there are open lines of communication with the team and that they know I am on their side and championing for their work and career.

Chuck Bayne

Christine – you’re absolutely correct. Most managers and supervisors receive very little training. If they do it is likely a short course at the front of their career and yet most of us experienced managers know our learning really should be an on-going process. Open communication is a key factor to success and having a champion is something that most workers would beg to have. Great comment!