Leadership myths and truths

Crises are not only disruptive; they are also a vivid reminder of the need for effective leadership. Pilar Bush the managing director of AtWater examines the role of leaders and what can be done to produce effective leadership. 

The cataclysmic event of the 2008 financial meltdown, followed by years of sustained external forces and internal pressures together are creating and spreading transformational change at national, industry and corporate levels. The change can be felt, even if not always seen. This sustained pressure has forced leaders to reset expectations and communicate a new paradigm in private industry, governments and even non-profits. 

One could argue that the global financial meltdown was, and the current national and state level economic problems are, at their source the result of systemic, layered failures in leadership and governance. Can the same institutions, actors and environments produce the needed solutions? 

The Cayman Islands has witnessed its own crises and here too, we see examples across the public and private sector of leadership that was stuck, unyielding and resistant to take the brave, bold and painful decisions early enough to minimise the persistent symptoms of our economic ills.  

CEOs, industry leaders and public policy makers are slowly but surely accepting the need for evolved leadership; leadership that is willing, even if not perfectly prepared, to tackle the complex challenges that lay ahead.  

What exactly are we looking for in contemporary leadership? Are we clear or confused on the role and responsibilities of leaders? How do we improve our odds of getting and maintaining effective leadership in public, private and civic organisations? 


Leaders and leadership 

Leaders are found everywhere, in corporations, on sports teams, in governments, class rooms and families. Leaders are individuals who inspire others to follow; who exert a disproportionate influence on the activities of the group because they connect with the pulse of the people.  

Leaders can be identified by their repeated ability to mobilise a group of people and have them take action towards a common purpose. Leaders take responsibility, have courage and want to be accountable for results. Leaders set the course and go out first. Leaders live the right example, consistently demonstrating the behaviour required of the group. Leaders make timely and sound decisions.  

According to the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management, while leadership and management are closely connected – both are about achieving results through others – there are important differences: 

Leaders look at the horizon, set long range goals, and provide strategic direction and context, outlining their vision and objectives. Leaders are responsible for execution. They are transformational; providing purpose and meaning, building communities by creating a sense of trust, confidence and belief; inspiring people to follow them, challenging followers to become the best they can be.  

Managers get things done. They set the operational direction, and facilitate and organise resources in order to optimise the performance of people, allowing them to carry out tasks and achieve goals efficiently and effectively. They create the space that allows people to collaborate together; they provide the clarity and accountability that enable teams to meet their objectives. 


Five leadership myths 

Myth #1: Title and position make you a leader. Perhaps the most common myth is this: by sole virtue of the title or position held by an individual, they are leaders, capable of leadership. Quite the contrary, individuals often find themselves with the title, role and responsibility of leader as consequence of something else. For example, corporate promotions as a reward for performance; loyalty, trustworthiness or worse, tenure, can bring with it substantial leadership responsibilities that exceed the individual’s desire and ability to lead.  

Myth #2: Leadership is the sole responsibility of the person with the title and position. Reality: Effective leadership is a relationship, one with shared accountability and shared burden of responsibility between the leader and the people he or she represents. Effective leaders know the importance of a team, where individual strengths combine to offset weaknesses and underpin the collective strength of the group. Followers also have a responsibility to be participatory in the process, to play a role and be instrumental in achieving the goals, to provide feedback to leaders and to hold them accountable.  

Myth #3: Leaders are born, leadership can’t be learned. Reality: While some individuals have innate talents and are more comfortable in leadership roles, almost everyone can be taught the principles, skills and behaviours of leadership. Empirical evidence abounds on the transformation of seemingly ordinary people into extraordinary leaders, starting with a stark, candid self-awareness and then transformed by their willingness and dedication to learn, their grit and perseverance, and their resolve to continually improve. In the book the Leadership Challenge, now in its Fifth Edition, James Kouzes and Barry Posner demonstrate that what people want in their leaders remains relatively unchanged over the past thirty years and across continents, countries and cultures. In this widely taught leadership handbook, they outline the five key leadership practices that with diligence, honesty and commitment can help any ordinary person become an extraordinary leader.  

Myth# 4: How you behave in your private life, outside of work does not affect your ability to lead. Reality: Character is the bedrock of effective leadership, and character is consistent in your personal and professional life. The Oxford Dictionary defines “character” as the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. Character is your core, forged over years and years. For example, if a CEO is a chauvinistic, successful man who secretly believes women are incapable of his intellectual equal, that women should focus on homemaking and childcare and serve his executive image of a balanced family man by facilitating a perfect looking family at corporate events; what are the chances such a CEO will be able to avoid a double standard, and be objective and fair when dealing with intelligent, hardworking and ambitious working women in the workplace?  

Myth# 5: There is a single, objective, right way to lead. Reality: Leadership is contextual and in any given situation, there is often more than one right way to lead. Crisis situations require different leadership than those where there is an established level of success and there is a stability to maintain and protect. A publicly traded, global corporation on the verge of bankruptcy requires a markedly different leadership approach to that of a profitable, liquid family owned business which has a strong competitive advantage in its industry. The reality is leadership is subjective and situational. The same individual must be able to deploy a different leadership style when in a boardroom filled with outstanding executives than when playing pick-up basketball for the first time with teenagers at the local gym.  

As a leader, if you are subconsciously holding onto any of these unfounded beliefs, these myths, eliminate them immediately. If you recognize them in a leader, respectfully point them out. 


Leadership truths 

Great leadership requires a complex set of skills which have to be continually honed and fined tuned. Great leaders share common characteristics which make them successful. They operate based on truths which underpin their behaviours and actions.  

Here are three powerful truths, understood by effective leaders, which should be understood by those us evaluating leaders and potential leaders: 

Truth#1: Authentic leaders know and understand themselves. High degrees of self-awareness and emotional intelligence are characteristics common to all great leaders. Leaders strive to operate as their authentic selves at all times and to behave in accordance with their inner principles or values. Authentic leadership requires one to be fully aware of their strengths, weaknesses and flaws. Without a complete self-understanding, those in leadership positions might achieve significant success but risk jeopardising it all when the stress becomes overwhelming (or the power intoxicating) because of their inability to manage themselves or their emotions. Worse, these unmanaged weaknesses in leaders can cost organizations millions of dollars in wasted resources and cost countries years of social development. Authentic leaders know to seek feedback, external perspectives and most importantly, when to adapt.  

Truth #2: Leaders inspire action in pursuit of a shared vision. Leaders get ordinary people to do extraordinary things. They mobilise individuals and groups to take action. By sharing a vision, providing purpose and creating a strong culture of shared values in the pursuit of worthy goals; effective leaders inspire others to take action, to change their behaviour and to align with the organizational strategy. Inspired activation is different than motivation. Leaders don’t motivate because they know that motivation comes from within a person, and if people don’t buy into the shared vision, they cannot be motivated to act. Inspiration is different – it appeals at a deeper level than motivation and engages the heart and the mind. Great leaders know that to truly engage their followers they need to inspire them, then they will motivate themselves. 

Truth#3: Leaders must be credible and model the expected behaviour. Whatever your leadership role, credibility is essential to effectiveness. Whether the CEO of a financial services firm, the leader of an internal project or the Prime Minister of a G8 country, if you want employees, team members or citizens of your country to adopt certain behaviours, develop specific skills and display particular attributes then you have to model them yourself first. Leaders who have a strong set of principles and guiding values, and who live by them, command much more respect than those who don’t. A leader should always display the kind of behaviour that he or she would expect to see from others.  



As we start 2013, the global recession sputters on, we see evidence and consequences of inadequate leadership scattered all around us. Leaders have no choice but to define a new path, one where they weave together social forces such as culture, values, heritage, nationalism and multi-nationalism, and religious beliefs and integrate them with the economic realities of flat income; no savings; expensive capital, unprecedented fiscal constraints, an ill equipped labour force; a bloated, inefficient public sector, increasing taxes and the attrition of investor confidence and business growth, especially in large and midsize companies. Add to that the political forces – the frenzy of local and national elections; ambitious, driven politicians and an electorate who are themselves in a state of transformation. Leadership researchers Kouzes and Posner, authors of the Leadership Challenge sum it up this way “Although the context of leadership has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, the content of [effective] leadership has not changed much at all.” We get the leadership we expect and participate in.