Common Leadership Misconceptions: What should we really be striving for?

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Hey there, and welcome to Episode 47 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week's episode, Common Leadership Misconceptions: What should we really be striving for? I came across a great article in Forbes Magazine a few weeks ago entitled ‘The 3 Biggest Misconceptions About Leadership’ by Rajeev Peshawaria. It was such a good article that it got me to thinking about what the biggest misconceptions about leadership actually are.

Rajeev addresses some really big ticket items in his treatment of the subject, so today I'm going to build on his article and talk about what in my view are the biggest leadership misconceptions. Of course, in my world, some of these misconceptions are tantamount to believing your own bullshit, something we should all be trying to avoid.

We're going to start by looking at the key points from Rajeev's article, and I'll put a link to this in the show notes, and then I'm just going to build a little on Rajeev's thinking, and I guess this is standing on the shoulder of giants, to come up with my take on leadership misconceptions and it's that simple. Let's get into it.

I want to start by giving you a quick fly over the top of Rajeev's article. He starts by making the observation that in the last 200 years, we've made incredible progress in virtually every area, but great leadership remains illusive. I could not agree with this more. Misconception number one: Leadership is about influencing others to achieve something. Misconception number two: Leadership is about having the authority to make a difference, and; misconception number three: Followership and leadership are the same thing. Let's have a look at these in a little more detail. 

When it comes to the first misconception that leadership is about influencing others to achieve something, Rajeev uses the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela. These three individuals created something extraordinarily powerful in themselves, thereby setting up a role model scenario that inspired other people to act.

They didn't actually do anything to anyone else. They didn't try to influence other people. They were just who they were. This is a point well made. I think the basis behind it is absolutely solid. The only thing I'd say, though, is that Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela are extreme outliers.

The examples set by these and other individuals of this ilk should be followed, should be aspired to. By the same token, there are literally millions of leaders in organisations large and small, right across the world, who have to get shit done day-to-day. They do not have the personal power, resolve, and character of these three extraordinary outliers. So, in practical terms, you do need to actually influence others to achieve stuff, because otherwise you're not doing your job as a leader. However, how you go about that is all important. Aspiring to the virtues that's been modelled by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela will stand you in good stead no matter what.

Let's look at misconception number two. Leadership is about having the authority to make a difference. So, the article goes back to the examples from misconception one, Mandela, King, Gandhi etc., didn't have formal titles for the most part. Yet, still they had an incredible ability to influence through their life, their message, and their values. This is absolutely true. I'm wholeheartedly behind this one.

People say that leaders are the ones with the authority and power but it's not the case. In most organisations, power is not always vested in the formal roles, but also in the opinion leaders, and the thought leaders who can sway the views and thinking of the people around them for the better.

Misconception number three is a very powerful point, around followership and leadership. Rajeev points out that from a young age, we're taught to do as we are told. People who are compliant are perceived favourably by their leaders. They're then promoted into leadership positions and they become really good followers who find themselves cast as leaders. This is a really powerful point, because I think this can underpin some of the other ills we see in leadership teams, such as group think and having a team of yes men around you. Followership versus leadership is a critical issue for us to understand.

But there is a lot to be said for being a good follower. This includes having the courage to disagree with a boss when necessary. A good follower is also going to be a good leader. Some people call this disruptive. I even had one head of HR describe me as having “behavioural issues”, as I wouldn't just suck up to the CEO and tell him what he wanted to hear. I spoke my mind fearlessly, but I hope, always respectfully, to make sure that I was contributing my best.

But I wouldn't buckle under pressure on issues of principles or values. This is not always received well, as I'm sure many of you have already found out. The conclusions that the article draws are powerful. So one of them is that we develop leadership training around all the wrong things. Now, can you imagine that? The billions of dollars that are spent on leadership education, and so many things there are training us to do the wrong stuff.

We also get to the point what is leadership? Now, according to Rajeev, and I think these things are excellent and once again extraordinary powerful. Number one: Living according to a set of deeply held personal values and never compromising them no matter what. Tick. Number two: Visualising and pursuing a purpose that is based on those values and greater than oneself. Two ticks.

Now, as a side note, for most people in the world, if you work for some else, you don't actually get to set the purpose for yourself. Number three: Based on the strength derived from one's belief in a values based purpose, remaining resilient, despite the toughest of resistance. Once again, tick. When it comes to these three core attributes and behaviours, any leader on the planet would do well to pay attention to them. Once again, sensational article from Rajeev, and please look it up, because the link's going to be in the show notes.

To finish off, I just want to get a little bit more granular here and talk about what I think the biggest half dozen misconceptions are about leadership from my perspective, and my experience. Now, these things are a little bit hard. You're going to have to think about this, because they sound like they should be true. Some people articulate them and rattle them off in a way that would suggest that they are simply common sense. So it's relatively easy to fall into the warm comfort of believing these conventional wisdom style of things, but in my experience, they're absolutely not true.

Let's start with number one. Happy workers are productive workers. Now, I did a full podcast episode on this a number of months ago. It is an absolute misconception that happy workers are productive workers. It's possible that happy workers are productive workers. But you've got to distinguish between happy being people who have fun, and happy being people who have deep satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, from achieving difficult things in their role.

I think too many people equate happy with having fun. As a leader, it's really important that you understand this distinction. Because if you're trying to just make people happy, in terms of making sure they have fun at work, this can feed into all sorts of destructive leadership behaviours. For a start, you're very unlikely to stretch and challenge people, which puts them under pressure if you believe that you have to keep them happy.

You will not give them the tough feedback that they need just on the off chance that you might demotivate them. You will only say positive shit. That doesn't actually help anyone. It doesn't help them, it doesn't help you grow as a leader, and it certainly doesn't help the organisation get the best out of the resources it's paying for.

Misconception number two on my list is that having solid values makes you a great leader. This is weird, because the converse is absolutely true. For example, if you don't have solid values, you absolutely can't be a great leader. But having solid values is what I like to call “necessary, but not sufficient". A lot of leaders have really strong values, but they can't put them into practise, for a whole range of reasons.

Because they can't put them into practise, the experience of their teams and the people around them is extraordinarily different from the self-image that this leader has in their head. Now, let me just paint this out for you a little bit. I have not spoken to many leaders across my lifetime who have not mentioned integrity as being core to their value set.

So you go and try this yourself. Go and ask any leader around you, "What are the values that guide you as a leader?" I bet within the first three to four, you will get them to tell you it's integrity. Yet, when you look at how they actually perform and behave, most, and I say most, that's more than 50%, do not understand how to actually operate with integrity in the organisational context. My conclusion about this second misconception is that having solid values may make you a great leader and it's a really good base to have, but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a great leader.

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Misconception number three, hire great people and then get out of their way. This is a really big misconception for two reasons. The first is that not many leaders truly seek to hire the best people. I'm going to come back to this in a second. The second problem is that just getting out their way does not give them enough context or stretch or challenge, all the other things that they need to be their absolute best. Even if they are great people.

So, let's go back to why we wouldn't necessarily hire the best people. Jeffrey J Fox, in his book, ‘How To Become A Great Boss’, has a chapter that's entitled Beware: Sevens Hire Fives. Now of course, a seven is 7 out of 10 on the scale of competency, ability, attitudes, behaviours, all those types of things. Sevens don't hire nines and 10s. They only hire fives, and why is that the case? Because they either fear competence, or they don't like to invite self-comparison.

Fives aren't challenging to a seven. They're plentiful and they're at a lower pay scale. Sevens can dominate fives, and they know it. It's only nines and 10s that try and hire other nines and 10s. We just need to be awake to the fact that in some cases, our leaders aren't trying to hire the best people. Let's put that aside and get onto the second part of that sentence of misconception, hire great people and then get out of their way.

Well, the first thing is, you should be getting out of everyone's way. Getting in their way is either obstructing or micromanaging, and obviously we don't want that to happen. But even the best people need to be stretched, so you can't just leave them in isolation. You need to challenge, coach, and confront them to bring out their absolute best. Sometimes it's by getting more out of your really top A players that you really drive the organisation forward.

Because behind them, they create a vacuum that other people move in to fill. Instead of just getting out of their way, support them. Give them really clear objectives, make sure they're very linked up between what they're doing and the strategy and purpose of the organisation. Set very clear targets for them so they know what success looks like, and set difficult targets. Set really high standards of behaviour and performance. It's only in that environment that these exceptional people will truly perform and outshine everyone else.

Let's move on to misconception four. Over time, people will learn to trust me. Now, this is an incredible misconception, because trust does not increase with time alone. People will become more familiar with you over time, but their trust won't necessarily grow. If they don't trust you to start with, you will normally just find that that initial feeling is exacerbated over time as they observe your behaviours. As Stephen Covey says, “Trust is a combination of character and competence.”

These are observable traits in everyday behaviours. How you talk, the things you focus on, how you make decisions, the things you avoid, whether you take the right path or the path of least resistance. People are watching this, and this tells them whether or not they can trust you. But if you're doing these things the right way, trust can be built really, really quickly, because people pay attention to the cues you give them.

Misconception number five. Great leaders are humble. Now, look, this is probably true to an extent, but it is a dangerous statement. Leaders definitely have to be grounded, so to not believe their own bullshit. They have to be realistic and accepting of the role that both luck and timing play. But to balance off this humility, it's really important that they also have a level of confidence and conviction in what they're doing.

Quite often this is a very difficult balance to strike. Jim Collins talks about level five leaders, and the combination of humility and fierce resolve, which probably nails it pretty well. But just to single out humility and to say that's what's going to make a great leader, without the fierce resolve, the drive, the confidence, and the commitment to get things done is not actually going to work. You're certainly not going to be a great leader.

Misconception number six, people all contribute to the best of their ability. I've had leaders say to me, "Look, I don't think anyone comes into work to do a crap job." I think for the most part, that's probably true. But once again, it's a dangerous statement. Because people are held back by all sorts of things. Their own fears and misgivings, distrust in a culture, which can dilute people's contribution, concerns about what other people think of them. And of course, their upbringing and expected behavioural norms.

Your ability as a leader to invite challenge and uniqueness of thought is really important. Because many leaders just drive a ‘yes man’ culture. Even if people have the right intent, and they'd like to contribute, the environment for them to do so is simply not created. This is why a leader needs to very explicitly drive the behaviours and culture that are required for high performance, and find a way to bring out the best in their people.

Only an individual's will, combined with the leader's skill, will achieve this. Watch out for these half dozen misconceptions in yourself and in the leaders below and around you. We will help you work out how to manage these misconceptions in the leaders above you in a later episode, because that's where it gets a little tougher.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 47. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. If you're enjoying this podcast, please share it with the leaders in your network, and please take just a couple of minutes to rate and review it, as this is how we reach even more leaders

I'll look forward to next week's episode where I'll do another Q&A with Em to address some of the listener questions on building trust and managing change. 

Until then I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.