5 leadership myths – and what you should believe instead.

Leadership is full of half-truths and well-worn assumptions.

This week, I explore five of the recurring myths about leadership I come across – and provide tips around what we, as leaders, can be doing (and thinking) instead.

So, what are these common 5 myths?

1. I’m really approachable, so my team tell me the truth.

You might be as approachable as a cuddly kitten. You might even actively encourage honesty from your direct reports. But no matter how open and unintimidating you think you are, there’s this thing called positional power – and it packs a powerful punch when it comes to frank and honest conversations in organisations. Your team are acutely aware of the hierarchical power in the room; that you’re their boss and that you have the capacity to decide their fate.  Or at the very least, their experience at work.

What to think and do instead:

Understand the potency of hierarchical power that’s at play in your organisation and within your team. The further up the chain you go, the harder it is to get honest feedback. Most, if not all, of your colleagues by now – especially those that see you day-to-day – are your subordinates, so it’s essential to assemble a team of junior coaches.  

Over time – with consistency and a lot of focus on psychological safety – you can create an environment where you’re more likely to get honesty from your team. This is a good thing for team performance. An honest environment will mean you not only make it safe for your team to challenge your thinking and ideas, but also ensures that someone reaching out to you can have the courage to tell you when you’re doing something that is grating on them, without this being a career-limiting move. It’s not easy; recognise that you’ll need to overcome systemic and cultural barriers – but it’s worth the effort.

Get into the habit of asking balanced feedback. Try questions like: “What am I missing?” Invite people to: “Challenge my thinking on this.” Explore “What are you thinking but are too reticent to bring up in this group, but which might add to our better decision making?” Or openly ask “What is one thing I do that if I stopped doing, might lead to a better working relationship between us?”

Don’t be surprised if, at first, the people you lead aren’t forthcoming. Gently persist. Let them know that you’ll be regularly asking them to give you constructive feedback and that you expect them to be honest. When they do – and this is perhaps the most important part – handle that like a pro. See this blog post I wrote about how to receive feedback well.

2. I’m a good listener.

Again, possibly. But more than likely, you’re not as good a listener as you think you are. Here’s what I mean  – a survey of almost 14,000 employees around the world found that only 8% think their mid- and senior-level leaders are good listeners. This despite the fact that Zenger Folkman research found that leaders with a preference for listening are rated as more effective than those with a preference for talking. So, deep listening is a leadership superpower that’s worth your ongoing focus. The best leaders are proactive, strategic and intuitive listeners, who understand that hearing is more important than being heard.

What to think and do instead:

Without sounding obvious, improve your listening skills. We can all get better at this leadership skill. And a bit like exercise; it’s an ongoing everyday thing if you want to reap the rewards. How?

  • Ditch distractions (yes, put your devices down) and look at the person you are listening to with your complete attention.
  • Suspend judgement. You’re not listening to respond right now. Instead, try to put yourself in their shoes and truly understand their position.
  • Deepen your listening especially when you hear a perspective that’s different to your own. Ask open, curious questions – like “what do you mean when you say…?” Or “can you tell me more about…?”
  • Paraphrase and reflect back what you have heard, which helps people  know you were paying attention, but can also help you to avoid assumptions.

3. I’ve got to have the answer.

No, you don’t.

In fact, if you go to your team with a powerful question and your curiosity about what might emerge, together you’re more likely to come up with a better answer. There are times when a more directive approach is needed and when you do need to know the answer. Example: when a plane is in mayday, the pilot is hardly going to turn to the copilot and ask, “what do you think we should we do?”. But having to have all the answers is a rarer occasion in leadership than you would think, and I see far too many leaders falling into the ‘compelled to know’ camp, instead of guiding themselves and their teams through ‘not knowing’ territory.

Here’s what to think and do instead:

First of all, regularly pause and ask yourself, “does this situation call for an I decide, we decide or you decide approach?” Get clear in your own mind and then, critically, be transparent on what approach you’re using and why.  See this blog for further ideas on this concept.

If you aren’t sure of the next step or the answer to a complex or fast-changing situation, fess up. This might sound like, “I’m not sure of the answer but, when I look around the room, I’m really confident that together we can find a solution.” Or, “I don’t have the answer to that right now, but it’s a good question and as soon as I find out, I’ll tell you” Then make sure you follow through on that promise.

4. Soft skills and tough decisions are mutually exclusive.

A common misconception I see in the many leadership conversations is that managing non-performance and compassion (for everyone involved) during that performance process can’t be present at the same time. It’s as if we need to get all robotic, cold, adversarial or fall into the trap of the “horn effect”. We feel the need to armour up and just follow process. This is common when we are managing non-performance in someone we lead.

What to think and do instead:

Yes, it’s important you DO address non-performance. It’s imperative you follow the right process. It’s  often uncomfortable for everyone involved. That said, you can and should bring empathy, curiosity and heart to your conversations and this process. These things are not mutually exclusive. You can be tough on process, clear on expected outcomes – and still focus on maintaining mana for everyone.

5. Peoplestuff is for the HR department to deal with.

So many HR teams are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. When there are issues in teams, HR are called in, usually with all manner of urgency and hair-pulling to sort the sh#tstorm out. The conversations that should have been had by the leader – providing clarity on expectations, feedback and coaching conversations, development conversations – have not been had when they should have, or to the extent they should have, up front.  People “issues” or “problem people in my team”  are seen as the realm for the people function in your organisation. Let’s ditch that mental model for everyone’s benefit.  

What to think and do instead:

If you’re a leader of people, your first priority is leading your team. The people you lead ARE your job. People stuff is your priority. Don’t wait another day to start upskilling your leadership capability in the basics, even if you’re an experienced leader and think you know it all. There is always room for improvement. These are the foundational aspects and ongoing leadership skills I cover in The Leader’s Map.

Grow your capacity to coach, delegate, give and receive feedback. Focus your energy on building a high-trust team. And call in HR as your business partner to help you at the earliest juncture if you’re not sure of next steps or if you’re struggling. Use them as a ‘phone a friend’ before you’re in ‘Stucksville’.

Leadership is full of half-truths, timeless sagacity and changing perspectives. But these myths are the ones I am seeing again and again in my role as a leadership developer. It’s time we debunked them and chose a better way of thinking and being – not only for ourselves, but for those we lead.

If this blog resonated, share it with your colleagues.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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