The word “leadership” is very lightly used in business, politics, and sports. Whether it is through success or failure, leadership is often considered the anchor in a web of other buzz words. We often view leaders through a glamorized lens tinted with greatness, perseverance, and charm. Truthfully, leadership is no different than most of the buzz words we come across in business discussions, political debates, or sports bar arguments. Leadership is such a prevalent topic today that you can actually acquire a Masters’ degree in the discipline at many schools in North America.
What happened? When did leadership become a superstar in the world of business? When did leadership become the focus of many business leaders across North America? Although the cause or reason is not exactly clear, the fact remains that leadership is what everyone is talking about. And since everyone is talking about it, so should we. Except, here’s what we’ve learned – leadership may not be all that great. It may not be all that impactful.
The top business leaders in the world such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all have or had plenty in common – they are rich, famous, and recognized as leaders in their domain. And although that is all true, it doesn’t actually mean they are true leaders or that leadership, as defined by many business books, is what propelled them to success. Keep in mind, most of the time their success was celebrated after the fact and not during their reign.
Though Steve Jobs founded Apple and served as its leader for years, he was never celebrated as a leader until the company was hugely successful – at least publicly that is. He had vision, innovation, passion, and drive, but was he an actual leader? Did he have followers? When Facebook became mainstream in social media, everyone recognized Mark Zuckerberg as a leader, but was he actual leader or just a very bright person with a great idea. How about Warren Buffet? Is he a leader because he’s a wise investor? He owns multiple companies, but does he actually have leadership qualities, money, or both?
This is not to say that leadership can’t be impactful. It’s a question of measuring the degree of impact. When applied in particular circumstances, it is feasible that one person can inspire others. And although this does happen in business, it doesn’t seem to happen as frequently as we celebrate it.
Our love of leadership has caused us to acknowledge it when it isn’t really there, celebrate it when it’s really not all that impactful, and glamorize it after the fact. However, there are harsh realities with leadership and leaders that we do not celebrate, acknowledge, or glamourize. These harsh realities seem to float just under the radar. Yet these realities are actually myth busters that help us understand the motivation behind leaders and their invariable flaws.
Myth #4: It Comes Down To One
Leadership is often associated with the efforts of one person. It is rarely, if ever, perceived to be a group or collective effort. Leaders, even “humble” ones, can’t help but be the first to take recognition, but in their defense, they are the first to fall.
Unfortunately, a leader’s efforts are really just a front. Behind this front is often a secondary group of leaders contributing to what’s known as shared leadership. Often, we’ll read how “real” leaders step up and take initiative, but that’s not really all that true.
Leaders are often driven by their followers. When followers demonstrate leadership or support for their leader, then leaders actually step up. This cause and effect is often misunderstood by many as the initiative of one person. It’s not always a leader’s initiative that drives success; it can actually be the initiative of their followers.
This notion of single leadership is actually a misconception, because in the absence of followers, leaders aren’t actually leaders. There’s something to be said about followers and followership.
Followers, specifically in business, are not necessarily people who blindly follow, but instead are contributors and often share the leadership or push the leader. Their efforts are what propel initiatives and movements so that leaders can be the front.This front creates the illusion that the leader inspired the movement or initiative. This notion of shared leadership is a truer depiction of reality that is often underplayed, specifically in business and political circles.
Myth #3: Leaders Are Here To Stay
The truth is that people generally have very little patience for leaders, which explains why the often come and go. The follower has the longest staying power. We often hear how leaders are the decision-makers, which puts them in a position of authority or power. However, evidence shows that followers can decide a leader’s fate, and when followers stop following, leaders eventually fall.
This has become more problematic as of recently. More and more people today have demonstrated very little tolerance for error and opinion, and consequently more leaders have paid the price. Now that being said, leaders are also more glamorized than they once were.
Today, we tend to create our leaders, glamorize them, give them no room for error, and then crush them if they let us down. “Crush” is a bit of an understatement – we generally pick them apart for what ultimately becomes a slow painful death. It’s unfortunate, but even though leadership is commonly shared, only one person gets the blame.
Myth #2: Everyone Is Listening
If you asked leaders of organizations to describe their level of influence, many would describe it as significant. However, employee engagement is actually down year over year in America, and more and more employees are not really listening to what their leaders are saying. Leaders have become “talking heads” in a hyper distracted society of followers.
Today, more leaders are faced with the growing challenge of getting through to their followers. There is no evidence that this challenge will go away, either. It seems to be rapidly growing and causing leaders to re-think their approach.
Traditionally, leaders had the big office with the closed door and all the authority, and that leadership style is beginning to disappear. Effective leadership is described as one of influence and inspiration, but how can that all transpire if no one is listening? It seems as though today’s leaders are simply talking, but not actually leading, and in the end if it all turns out for them, then they are credited, or even take the credit.
If leadership is truly as critical as it has been made it out to be, then leaders should expect to be heard, not ignored. It will be interesting to see if this myth can be busted.
Myth #1: Leaders Represent You
Leaders are tasked with representing the interests of many. Essentially, a group of people who share a common goal choose a leader to represent them. However, leaders inevitably represent their own interest, which consequently contradicts what made them leaders in the first place.
It’s a contradiction that is not always the fault of leaders. It’s actually a shared fault between leaders and followers. When leaders assume their role, they do so with the intention of representing the masses. However, over a small period of time, the interest of the masses is overshadowed by the fame or recognition of the leader. Ironically, this becomes problematic for both the follower and the leader, as the distance between leaders and their followers grow apart.
The leader is eventually perceived as someone with different interests than the masses, and the masses are perceived as a group of people who cannot succeed without their leader. It’s an interesting dynamic that eventually evolves despite completely different intentions. It’s for this reason that leaders almost always prioritize themselves before serving the interests of others. It’s a paradox that has been problematic for centuries, and is unlikely to change.