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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Starmer

The Top Ten Really Dumb Things Organisations Still Believe About Leadership

Sometimes I despair that after a thirty-year career, within which twenty years have been spent studying and specialising in leadership development, I’m still hearing businesses trot out the same old nonsenses (for the polite version, read ‘common misconceptions’) that underpin their approach to leadership development.

For amusement, I thought I'd share with you just some of the absurdities I come across. There are many more, but here are the top ten. See how many you or your business subscribe to…

Leaders are born not made. This one is so inane, I cringe writing it, but I still come across it. I've never yet heard of a doctor announcing a baby's birth with the words “It's a leader!” Certainly, some people may naturally have or develop an ability to exhibit the skills and attributes that make a good leader; but those very same attributes, if correctly quantified and understood, may be developed. Leadership is too generic a term to be properly defined. (This normally gets expressed as “What is leadership anyway?”)

Leadership is misunderstood. Way too often a business will follow the latest vogue version being espoused by a successful CEO in their business biography. Others resort to glib sound-bite platitudes to describe the differences between leaders and managers as if that's enough to give it definition. Let’s be clear on one thing: Leadership implies followership. You can’t be a leader if people won’t follow you. It’s as simple as that. To understand what leadership is, you have to understand what and why people follow. Period.

Leadership and management is essentially the same thing.

Management requires a particular set of skills, most of which are process related and may even be described as technical. Employing them is the base parameter for effective management and as such, is what is expected from any individual who has a management role. These skills are vital and they allow control of the business. But these skills are expected, and they don't add particular value to the individual or make them want to follow. (But they do demotivate if they’re not present in a manager!) Leadership skills are not the same. They are relatively exceptional, they add personal value to the individual and they make a huge motivational difference.

Leadership is only expected from those at the top of an organisation.

Yes, it's certainly the place where it's most expected to come from. But every single person who has responsibility for others (and that includes in client relationships) should be examining their ability to maximize the value of their relationships and attempting to develop their leadership skills, for everyone’s benefit.

If you're at the top, you're naturally a leader.

Rubbish. Just because someone is in a position where leadership is required and expected from them, doesn't mean that they are a leader. It merely means that they have a senior management position and those for whom they are responsible will look to them to be a leader. All too often, it's simply not a task they've been equipped to handle and their subordinates, and even the business as a whole, is left wanting.

Leadership doesn't matter as much as effective management.

This is a classic cop out for people who aren't able to exhibit leadership skills. Sometimes they're even afraid of the notion that they should be leaders in order to get the best out of people. There is no doubt that effective management is important to any organisation. But leadership encourages people to go the extra mile for their employers and will result in a better return from the business's people resources. Denial of this in an 'enlightened age' seems almost deleterious.

All senior people are leaders and people will follow because they have to.

The imperative that is inherent in the superior/subordinate relationship certainly makes for a kind of leadership, but not one that promotes followership. A state of motivation that stems from "I do this because I have to" is far less powerful in eliciting the maxim personal effort than one that stems from "I do this because I want to do my best." Ask yourself, if this needs ratification. Haven't you ever wanted to do something 'better' just because of the person that requested it of you?

Leadership cannot be learned.

Bummer. Then I've wasted the last twenty years helping a great many people develop a very particular set of skills erroneously. Of course they can be learned! But first, you have to understand exactly what it is that makes someone follow. And it's this that's most often misinterpreted and incorrectly explained in organisational leadership development initiatives. (Assuming they even exist!)

Leadership skills evolve naturally.

It's possible but unlikely. It is still the case that most individuals are promoted for their technical expertise, business success or management skill. This is not the same as leadership ability. Ideally, a leader should combine all these things, but organisational career paths lend themselves to favouring those who exhibit the former, not the latter. Once assumed, most roles where leadership is a requirement carry the burden of too much process responsibility to allow the incumbent to focus upon their own development needs. Input is required. Often it requires considerable personal development. And that means change. And that, in turn, requires assistance.

Leadership can be learned on the job.

This one is a piece of sheer folly that so many organisations trip up on. Leadership skills take time to be understood, developed and practiced. This can't happen on the job. It's just not safe to experiment with such powerfully impactful skills in an environment where the individual's every action has repercussions. So most would-be leaders just have to make do with what they’ve got in their 'kit bag'. The vast majority of businesses won't allow their key leaders off site for any meaningful duration (and by this I mean as little as a week) because their time is too precious. They never stop to quantify the value in allowing an individual time to properly develop an ability that could make a major difference to the whole organisation.

I consider it likely that some people reading this are going to be offended and cite what a prime example their organisation is for being the very antithesis of what I've written here. Really? Good for you! But know that your business is the exception rather than the rule. In my three decades as both employee and consultant, I have encountered a bewildering array of businesses, and I can assure you that leadership is still massively misunderstood, undervalued and undertrained. Increasingly, businesses may not rely upon the goodwill or personal motivation of their people to maximise their competitive edge. They need real leaders. But first, they need to abandon outdated and erroneous beliefs that are just really dumb.

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