There are countless myths many young people have about the mysterious world of leadership. Before we can define or even teach what leadership is, we must erase these false notions; otherwise, we are simply pouring water into a glass that is already full.
The explanation of leadership myths might be enlightening to you as well as to students. In fact, it will afford many of the people who would never consider themselves to be “leaders” to come forward and offer wonderful talents and skills that you would otherwise never know existed. This is truly a positive win-win benefit for all.
The Common Leadership Myths
1. Leadership is a rare skill.
Although there are very few who choose to be leaders, it is certainly not a rare skill. More appropriately, it is a “rare attainment.” Research has proven time and time again that leadership can be taught. Every student has the ability to become a leader in some area.
Let us be quick to add that leadership is not to be confused with politics or popularity. Some of our greatest examples of effective leaders focus on people who started out at the bottom of the heap. If one is willing to “pay the price,” the goal is within reach…no exceptions.
2. Leaders are born.
Society has glamorized the idea of the “born leader” via TV, movies, and the popular “rags-to-riches” stories that serve as an inspiration for all of us. Leadership is not genetic. Although we look at certain people as having extraordinary communication abilities, these are learned skills, too. Those who carry the label “personality plus” work at this endeavor each and every moment until it becomes a positive lifestyle habit. If you are born, then you can be a leader, and that is about the only thread of truth in myth #2.
3. Leaders are created by dramatic events.
We’ve been watching too many “Rocky” movies, it seems! The red-nosed reindeer is a great story with a wonderful message, but it needs to be put in perspective as we go about our day-to-day leadership responsibilities.
So many people say, “Well, the opportunity for me to be a leader just hasn’t appeared yet.” It won’t! Most leaders get their positions through their persistent dedication to some rather mundane and thankless jobs. They do it with such a sense of excellence they are automatically promoted to take on more prestigious assignments. “Nose to the grindstone and out of the air!” ’tis the road map to success.
4. Leaders are at the top of the organization.
This myth probably keeps many from doing what needs to be done because they do not feel they have the vantage (or advantage) to make a difference. We have come to think that a title or label somehow buys a higher level of understanding and makes decision making easier and more accurate. Undoubtedly, it is a benefit to have a high profile if one is to lead, but certainly not a necessity.
Some of our most influential leaders in history were people who embraced their mission with personal enthusiasm and carved their own way to success. Ultimately, the true measure of a leader is determined by the degree of accomplishment rather than the political posturing.
5. Leaders control.
Unfortunately, we often envision the leader as someone who maintains strict control over each and every situation, not to mention the authoritarian attitude toward the people they are leading. We often find the leader is very much “at the effect” of some rather obscure circumstances, and certainly things aren’t always to their liking, but they persist in their goal-driven efforts. There will be people who violently disagree with them, others who do not obey their directions or delegations, yet the leader continues to move forward, demonstrating an undying commitment to complete the task-at-hand.
So often the word “control” implies oppression, domination, coercion, and manipulation. It is important to remember that we only have control over ourselves. If people are “forced” to follow another out of fear instead of personal choice, it is not leadership, but dictatorship. (And history clearly points out the predictable results of this negative hierarchy.) The one form of control all leaders execute is self-control.
6. Leaders are charismatic.
Certainly there are some leaders who are charismatic, and if you have “the gift” (the literal meaning of the word) then by all means you should weave it into your leadership style. However, it is not a requirement.
Recent studies have led many experts to believe the ability to capture an audience (followers) — which we have labeled “charisma”—may be an extension of highly developed communication skills that can be taught when the creative side of the mind is unleashed through a series of mental exercises. In other words, we are going to be able to teach people to be charismatic, which may be no more than teaching people the confidence to express themselves with disciplined, enthusiastic presentation skills.
Even the great speakers have stage fright, insecurity blocks, and that proverbial nervousness. However, they press through the apprehension and take a stand. It’s called leading!
7. Power is bad.
Power is only bad when associated with greed and selfish ambition. This myth has forced many to stand back when they have so much to offer the organization. They have heard so many people accuse others of “letting the power go to their head” that they won’t take the risk of being put in that same light.
We can quickly cite many examples of great leaders judiciously administering power for the welfare of the people, e.g., Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, and our great religious leaders.
And power does not necessarily mean control. Again, society has often associated power with tragedy and human suffering. Though there are many examples of power abuse, there are equal (if not more) situations in which power has created a better world, including electricity, laser energy, medical breakthroughs, and certainly the shift we are experiencing in the quest for world peace. Truly, it is the way we use power.
It is said 10 percent will achieve leadership status in their lives. (A recent Harvard project has narrowed that small percentile to 5 percent.) Is it possible this figure is not larger simply because people are choosing not to be leaders? And, if that is so, are they not making this choice built on some misconceptions, preconceptions, and/or bad information about “what it takes”? Apparently so.
Teaching and explaining the Seven Myths of Leadership might open the door of opportunity to many of you and your students. It is amazing how many have already given up any notion of ever being a leader because of their sincere belief in one of the above fabrications. Here is a chance to unleash a wonderful source of possibilities and involve more “leaders” at a higher level of responsibility.
I am sure if you post this chapter on the bulletin board, you will have several students curiously reading its message to be followed by some thought-provoking conversation. Encourage this! It is healthy beyond measure. And, most important, it will build the self-image of that quiet student who has been avoiding any form of leadership because of a fear of “not having what it takes.”
Everyone has a special gift. Sharing that gift with others is the key to enjoying its full value. And since we cannot lead others until we lead ourselves, it is time to make the most of our lives by removing the myths and taking the lead.