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Myths of leadership


Rigid devotees of common sense and management theory could be making a big mistake. Mark Walsh offers an alternative take on leadership development.

Myths are sacred stories (sacred as in not tested or based upon fact) and both management theory and 'common sense' views of leadership are full of them. This article is a little piece of iconoclasm, or if you prefer, a counter myth. Myths keep people where they are by supporting a world-view and it’s my view that the world needs to change – and that’s leadership.

We agree what leadership is

There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are “gurus” on Twitter and life coaches who can’t make a living. Leadership is at best an elusive idea, though like love or comedy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t very real and very powerful. Peter Drucker says: ”Leaders are people who have followers,” which is perhaps about as much as can be agreed upon.

Being a boss makes you a leader

Much has been said about the difference between management and leadership, such as: “The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon,”  From Warren Bennis. Sometimes this distinction is useful, at other times overstated consultese - as ever, much depends upon definitions. However, the basic idea that power does not equal authority still stands. Being given a management position by virtue of talent, nepotism or time served does not make you a leader.

Organisations produce leaders

Many organisations actively squash the creativity, courage and individualism needed for leadership. Organisations may desperately need leaders, but do not produce them.

The great man/heroic leader theory

A leader is a charismatic hero who rises to power as a result of their innate greatness, right? Errr, wrong. This theory is thankfully going out of fashion. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, for example, describes numerous instances of people such as Bill Gates and The Beatles who loved something and then had an opportunity to practice it a lot, making them leaders in their field. They had talent but were not born great.

Others have criticised the macho, individualistic, context-free nature of this discourse as leadership is highly situational. Churchill, regarded by many as a great leader during the Second World War, wasn’t seen by many as the best person to lead Britain after WWII, so was voted out. The situation had changed.

Leaders have certain traits

What did Ghandi and Genghis Khan have in common – the answer is not a lot, yet both were great leaders. I recently read a popular book on leadership where over 25 traits that leaders 'should' possess were described. If you had half of the general traits described you’d be a good person, if you had all of them you’d be an uberleaderman.

Research shows little correlation between traits and leadership, see for example, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You, by Goffee and Jones. This provides a more learned summary of research than I can write here.

Leadership is what you know

Leaders know something followers don’t right? Mostly not. What they may well have is vision, heart and guts – and these are the key leadership skills. Can you imagine what others cannot? Can you manage your mood, energy and attention? Can you inspire others and build trust? Leadership is about being not knowing about.

Sending executives to management training college to memorise books and expecting them to come back as leaders, is like eating a menu and expecting nutrition. Emotional and embodied intelligence are the grain of truth in the great-man theory. The body, heart and (dare I say it) soul, are critical to who we are as leaders (see my previous article on how to be charismatic -

Leadership is just...XYZ

Most theories of leadership look at just one thing: Psychology, behaviour, culture, systems, etc. These are all crucial for a complete understanding of leadership. To understand leadership you need an integral perspective that takes into account “body, mind and spirit in self, culture and nature” to steal a phrase from Ken Wilber.  

Leaders are important

Leaders are important right? Well in one sense, they can certainly have a disproportionate effect on an organisation, however in another sense, good leaders are merely servants. Servant leadership, as espoused by Greenleaf and Ralph Lewis in the UK, suggests that true leaders put aside their egos and put the needs of others first.

Likewise, integral business leader Fred Kofman describes “success beyond success” suggesting that a leader’s worth is not judged just by external results but by the principles they stand by (see also Stephen Covey’s principal centred leadership). Kofman goes on to describe how business leadership can be a spiritual practice – an idea rooted in the ethics of Aristotle. This idea may appear zany today, but I believe it will one day be mainstream.

Personal leadership myths

I have enjoyed debunking some classic leadership myths, and am not the first to do so – thanks also to colleagues Aboodi Shabi and Ralph Lewis for their input. I’ll finish with a note on the myths we live in about ourselves.

Myth is an essential part of human meaning and we are all on our own 'hero’s journey' (see Joseph Campbell), having overcome hardships to get to where we are. These stories are not facts (and neither is this piece) yet are hugely powerful. Awareness around the myths we live in and the questioning and replacing of outdated myths is extremely powerful. It changes the outcome of the story. That’s leadership!

Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer with the “embodied” approach to management and leadership training. He heads training providers Integration Training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his blog:

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