10 Common Leadership Myths (Plus, What Really Matters)

People are promoted to positions of leadership for many reasons, some of which are based on false assumptions, misconceptions, and flawed logic. For example, highly productive salespeople often get promoted to sales manager jobs, even though their strengths may lie solely in marketing products and services.

While company executives may want to reward sales excellence with promotions, the marketing rep being moved up needs to possess the necessary “people skills,” problem-solving abilities, and planning skills to be effective in their new role. 

Some misconceptions about leadership stem from the natural inclination to “judge a book by its cover.” Combine that with the human tendency to assign labels to people and make unconscious assumptions about them, and you have the recipe for leadership myths that can hinder both company growth and career development.

As company cultures evolve and more emphasis is placed on diversity and inclusiveness, it’s becoming increasingly clear that not everyone fits neatly into a predefined category. In other words, there are a lot of “diamonds in the rough” at many companies whose value may be in direct proportion to the amount of training, encouragement, and coaching they receive. 

Some of the best leaders aren’t necessarily those who are the most outgoing or dynamic. Rather, they’re the ones who believe in the company’s mission, have a knack for inspiring coworkers, and demonstrate the ability to maintain their composure under pressure. That, combined with a strong work ethic, problem solving ability, empathy, and a positive attitude are qualities that often point to strong management potential.

One way to see beyond leadership myths and identify advancement potential for employees is to have candid conversations with them about their career goals, skills they’d like to acquire, and changes they might like to see in their job description.

Female leader explaining strategy to diverse team at meeting.

The Most Common Leadership Myths

Only extroverts make good leaders. While confidence and mental focus are essential qualities in an effective leader, having an outgoing personality is not. Being an introvert can present itself in many different ways and isn’t necessarily detrimental to a manager’s ability to lead a team or company. As long as the individual possesses solid skills in planning, organizing, and communicating, they have the basic qualities to be an effective leader.

Although a shy and inhibited person may not be an ideal candidate for most leadership positions, many introverts aren’t shy and do possess the knowledge, professionalism, and empathy needed to motivate and lead project teams.

One leadership style works with all employees. That statement might be true if everyone didn’t have unique personalities, individual learning preferences, and differing work habits. To create more of a level playing field, effective leaders often make an effort to establish rapport with staff, while adapting their management style to the strengths and weaknesses of each employee.

No feedback is good feedback. This leadership myth is a variation of the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” One reason leaders may not be on the receiving end of suggestions, complaints, or even criticism from staff is that they’re perceived as unapproachable.

By establishing an open-door policy and reminding employees that their suggestions and concerns are welcome (and won’t be used against them), team members will feel more valued, comfortable about expressing their ideas, and engaged in their jobs.

Leaders rise to the top based on qualifications. The truth about leadership is that many who have risen to managerial and executive levels aren’t always the most qualified. In many cases, their leadership skills may be lacking. This mismatching of employees to leadership roles is reminiscent of The Peter Principle, a best-selling book from 1969 that’s as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

To put the theory to the test, three university professors conducted a multi-year study involving 214 firms. Based on their findings, they concluded that “the evidence [is] consistent with the ‘Peter Principle,’ which predicts that firms prioritize current job performance in promotion decisions at the expense of other observable characteristics that better predict managerial performance.”

Laurence J. Peter, the author of The Peter Principle, said, “Look around you where you work, and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence. You will see that in every hierarchy, the cream rises until it sours.”

Experienced leaders are the most capable. Although relevant experience as a manager or corporate officer can be an asset, other qualities are often more valuable. Maturity and dedication are two key aspects of an effective leader, but organizational abilities, people skills, and project planning talents can provide more value than mere experience.

People are born leaders (or followers). Some children do appear to be natural leaders from an early age, but there are many others who, with a little encouragement and guidance, can develop strong leadership skills. Those “hidden” strengths can be cultivated at any age, but as adults, a well-structured management training program is often the best way to develop future managers.

Leaders should always be front and center. Some leaders thrive on public attention while others do better behind the scenes. While maintaining a high profile can be beneficial to both corporate and public relations, too much visibility may produce diminishing returns.

Leaders are expected to be infallible. Not only is this an impossible standard to live up to, but strong leadership doesn’t require it. Managers and corporate executives don’t have all the answers, which is why they often rely on a talented team to help develop strategies and carry out plans. Ideally, leaders recognize their limitations, remain accountable, work with staff to stay on course, and share credit when success is achieved.

As the Harvard Business Review pointed out, “Rapid, constant, and disruptive change is now the norm, and what succeeded in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future. Twenty-first-century managers simply don’t (and can’t!) have all the right answers.”

Leaders shouldn’t show vulnerability. This belief is counterproductive on many levels. It attempts to create the illusion that leaders never make mistakes and don’t share the same human qualities as everyone else. Leaders who are honest and forthright about their weaknesses and “lessons learned” are often more relatable, inspiring, and respected than those who put up a false front. 

Non-managers don’t have what it takes to lead. Actually, the opposite may be true, but supervisors don’t always recognize it. Employees at any level who are diligent, quality conscious, resourceful, and proactive generally have the basic qualities needed to manage people and projects. Initiative, a positive attitude, and the ability to inspire co-workers are also signs of leadership potential. 

The Truth About Successful Leadership

To be effective, leadership styles need to be tailored to the manager’s personality, the company’s circumstances, and the staff’s attitudes and capabilities. Many company leaders adopt a hybrid management style to respond to individual staff needs, personality differences, and changing conditions within the company and industry.

Seven Leadership Styles

Autocratic leadership: With this style, a manager or executive makes unilateral decisions without seeking input or feedback from associates or staff. This leadership approach is generally viewed as outdated and unsuitable for today’s business environment. The exception would be in crisis situations in which immediate, sound decisions are required.

This leadership style might also be appropriate when a highly experienced manager is managing a team of novices. While there are instances in which an autocratic leadership style may be effective or necessary, dictatorial leaders generally tend to alienate staff rather than inspire them.  

Authoritative leadership, also known as a “visionary” style, may be well suited for businesses that are struggling or undergoing change. Tim Stobierski, a contributing writer in Harvard Business School Online, offered the following examples:

“A department or team not meeting its goals in recent quarters; a shift in company ownership, leadership, or structure; a corporate turnaround after a decline; or a desire to innovate and change organizationally can all be appropriate situations for an authoritative approach.” Although “authoritative” implies inflexibility and strictness, this management style is known for its use of empathy, mentorship, and motivation.

Pacesetting is a high-pressure style of management that focuses on getting things done better and faster. While those goals may seem highly desirable, this intense, demanding, and inflexible approach for achieving results can be overwhelming to employees and bad for morale.

Democratic leadership encourages input from team members and “often leads to positive, inclusive, and collaborative work environments,” according to an article in Forbes. As “democratic” implies, this management approach “balances decision-making responsibility between the group and the leaders,” and encourages participation and collaboration from the staff.  

Coaching is one of the more supportive leadership styles and focuses on helping employees develop skills and improve themselves professionally. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments.”

Affiliative leadership is often used in conjunction with other management styles and prioritizes the emotional needs of employees. An overview of 7 leadership styles in business says this strategy is “all about encouraging harmony and forming collaborative relationships within teams. It’s particularly useful, for example, in smoothing conflicts among team members or reassuring people during times of stress.”

Laissez-Faire is a casual, more “hands off” management style that works best with employees who are conscientious, highly skilled, and generally know what needs to be done. With this high degree of independence, the primary role of managers is to provide constructive feedback, provide guidance, and keep track of team performance.

How to Encourage Employees to Become Effective Leaders

Encouraging, challenging, and offering career advancement opportunities to current and prospective managers can help cultivate loyalty, talent retention, and company growth.

Making training and professional development a core aspect of your company culture sends a clear message that employees don’t have to go elsewhere for career advancement opportunities. Ongoing training also gives team members confidence to tackle more challenging roles and assignments.

Identifying personnel who have leadership potential and the desire to advance helps create a readily available pool of qualified management candidates. Nurturing and encouraging staff to pursue goals within the organization also fuels HR goals.

Performance reviews are a good chance to discuss an employee’s accomplishments, their personal aspirations, ideas for continuous improvement, and their interest in training opportunities. By providing ongoing mentoring, coaching, and constructive feedback, supervisors can help staff reach their potential and maximize output. 

In addition to providing feedback, mentorship, and training, it’s important to challenge staff with meaningful assignments that expand the limits of their “comfort zone.” Millennials, in particular, tend to find project work rewarding, especially if they’re given a leadership role. Understanding the “millennial mindset” is a key element in engaging, motivating, and retaining this vital demographic group.

Professional Development Tools

Offering online training courses to employees is an effective strategy for cultivating in-house talent. Some of the relevant video courses KnowledgeCity offers include: Problem Solving for Leaders, Building Accountability in Your Team, and Engaging Members of Diverse Teams. Check out other relevant courses, such as leadership styles and fundamentals, in our extensive training library.

We also invite you to download our free guide on building a healthy organization (5 Tools to Increase Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Any Organization.)

To get a first-hand look at our eLearning platform and how it can enhance your employee training program, contact us today for a free demo. We would be happy to provide trial access to our library of over 30,000 videos that cover everything from leadership styles and strategic planning methods to creating a high-performance work culture and successfully managing a virtual team. 

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