BY MARK SANBORN
We live in an age that seeks quick fixes and easy answers. Sometimes leaders abdicate their thinking to others and accept “prevailing wisdom,” which is often an oxymoron.
I grew up, like most, accepting many things at face value. It wasn’t until I started giving important issues like leadership a second and third thought that I realized I’d been believing what turned out to be some serious leadership myths.
Here are seven leadership lies and why they simply aren’t true:
1. “All managers are leaders.” Truth: some managers can lead and others don’t or cannot. Management is a subset of leadership, not its equivalent.
Managers are good at setting up, monitoring and maintaining systems and processes. They hire people. But if they can’t bring out better performance in people and take the organization beyond where it is, they aren’t leading.
Leadership always involves change, improvement and growth.
2. “Some are born leaders.” Truth: even someone with a predisposition to lead must learn the skills of leadership.
A young person who is 6’6″ might have the predisposition to play basketball, but he or she still needs to learn the skills before they can play successfully.
Leadership might be more latent in some than others — and you can’t always tell — so focus on what is developing someone’s behaviors, not their biological background.
3. “Leaders always have the right answers.” Truth: leaders ask the right questions and know where to find the best answers.
If your people always come to you for answers, you’re stunting their ability to think. And if everyone in your company keeps asking the same questions, I assure you, you’re not that innovative.
Without questioning and curiosity, leaders simply manage by using familiar answers long after the marketplace has started asking different questions. It isn’t about knowing the answers as much as it is about knowing who to ask and where to look.
4. “You need a title to lead.” Truth: to lead you only need to know when it is appropriate to do so and how to do it.
When I stay at a hotel, the majority of people I encounter — from the front desk to housekeeping to foodservice — have no formal title or power over people, yet they are responsible for creating my experience there — good or bad. Good staff willing to take the lead are as important (and probably more) than the official leaders at the top.
Leadership is about making things better, and the best organizations teach everyone to take responsibility for leading.
5. “Leaders are focused.” Truth: Leaders create a shared focus.
If your team isn’t focused, it doesn’t matter how focused you are on doing what matters. A manager is usually focused, but a leader creates shared focus and doesn’t waste resources by allowing team members to do work that doesn’t matter.
Being focused is about self-responsibility and discipline. Creating shared focus is about engaging others in the leadership agenda and making it specific to their jobs.
6. “Leadership is about ambition.” Truth: leadership is about the greater good.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but it primarily serves the ambitious. If what you’re doing serves only you, you almost certainly aren’t leading.
When others are served better as well — customers, colleagues, vendors, the community — that is the sign of effective leadership.
7. “Anyone can lead.” Truth: Nobody can lead if they lack the desire to do so.
You can’t make people lead any more than you can make a horse drink once you’ve led it to water. Desire is the sine qua non of effective leadership.
And you, Mr. or Ms. Leader, cannot become better without the same desire. I’ve observed that nobody improves by accident. Getting better is about getting past the common thinking, lies and misconceptions and digging for wisdom. Once you know the truth, it can set you free and make you a better leader.