We all arrive at leadership with certain preconceptions about what makes a successful leader.
Sometimes we form an idea of what great leaders do based on historical leaders or modern-day leaders who are always getting media attention. Other times we form a picture of great leadership based on our own past experiences—both leaders we’ve worked under and even what attributes got us promoted into leadership. But those are often anecdotes.
And the plural of anecdote is not data. When you look at the data on effective leaders, pretty quickly you notice that some of these notions are misconceptions or outright leadership myths.
In this article, we’ll outline six leadership myths that are holding you back as a leader and may even be ruining your team—if you believe them of course.
Myth 1: Your Title Is Your Power
The first leadership myth is that your title is your power. It’s great that you’ve been promoted into a leadership role, but the mere title of leader doesn’t actually give you a lot of power over the team. Sure, your name is one box higher than your team members on the organizational chart. But if you work for a large organization, you may not actually have much ability to fire or punish people without getting approval from your boss or from human resources. Instead of trying to gain “legitimate power,” new leaders are better served by gaining rapport or respect from their team (what’s often called referent power and expert power respectively). When your team feels connected to you and respects your expertise, they’re much more likely to be influenced by you than if you’re merely trying to command them.
Myth 2: You Need To Have The Answers
The second leadership myth is that you need to have all the answers. This myth is most common in new leaders. Often, it’s the individual contributors who are hugely productive and who often have all the answers that get promoted into leadership roles. You were promoted for your expertise, so you protect your expertise at all costs. But the longer you stay in a leadership role, the more likely it is that your people know how to do the work better than you do. Pretending you know better may actually trigger their disrespect. In addition, leaders gain a lot of trust among their team when they’re willing to say, “I don’t know” and then look to the team for answers or commit to finding the answers and bringing them back. You don’t need to have all the answers, you just need to be committed to helping your find them.
Myth 3: Your Style Works For Everyone
The third leadership myth is that your style works for everyone. This myth is most common with middle managers. In the first leadership role, you often develop your preferred leadership style. And it often works because you’re leading a team of people who do a lot of the same work. But as you move up in an organization, and as your “team” starts to be a collection of different roles with different preferences, your preferred style becomes less important. It stops being about how you want to lead and starts being about how they want to be led—and led on an individual level. The best leaders understand the motivations and skillsets of each of their people individually and adjust their leadership style accordingly.
Myth 4: Disagreement Equals Disrespect
The fourth leadership myth is that disagreement equals disrespect. When someone on a team speaks up and disagrees with your idea, it can be easy to become defensive and see their disagreement as an act of defiance. And while some people can be downright belligerent, most disagreement on a team is healthy. The best teams are marked by a sense of psychological safety where everyone feels free to speak up, to express themselves, and even admit failure. And when team members disagree respectfully with you, how you respond affects how much psychological safety the team feels. Treat conflict as collaboration and remember that task-focused disagreement not only helps improve your idea, it helps everyone on the team know their opinions are valued.
Myth 5: Silence Signals Consent
The fifth leadership myth is that silence signals consent. This myth is the reverse of the previous one. Disagreement does not equal disrespect but at the same time, no one saying anything doesn’t mean everyone agrees with you. It could be that they have disagreements, but don’t yet feel safe to share them. (Or it could mean that everyone agrees…which means your team might not get much independent thinking.) When you feel your team reaching consensus early, or when no one is pushing back on your ideas, you’ll have to look harder for disagreements and encourage more candor on the team. Be willing to wait in silence for someone to speak up. Then treat that conflict as collaboration and over time your team will be less and less silent.
Myth 6: Performance Is Personal
The sixth leadership myth is that performance is personal. This final myth is less of a leadership myth and more of an organizational one. For most organizations, performance is measured individually and performance reviews conducted individually. But great leaders know it takes a team effort, and a growing body of research suggests that most of individual performance is better explained by the resources and collaboration of the team as a whole—whether high performance or low. So, when coaching members of your team, remember to take into consideration that much of their performance isn’t something they can fix, but rather something in the system or on the team that they need you to fix.
As you review this list, one myth in particular probably stood out to you—depending on your style and your leadership journey. That reaction is a good signal that the particular myth is one to focus your attention on and work on improving. But keep a lookout for the other myths as well. You may not believe them, but you may need to defend your team from other leaders who do. And as you move from myth to reality, your team will move toward greater performance until eventually they, and you, are doing their best work ever.
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