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14 Common Misconceptions About Leaders

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14 Common Misconceptions About Leaders

A number of years ago, I facilitated an aspiring leaders’ workshop in which one of the participants made a comment that took me by surprise. When I asked members of the group to share why they wanted to move into a leadership position, I heard comments such as: “I want to have the opportunity to shape teaching and learning “I want to work with teachers to enhance their performance”; or “I am looking for a bigger challenge.”

When it came her turn, a guidance counselor said: “I am nearing retirement. I would like a job with less stress and less hard work.” She seemed to be completely serious.

I nodded and moved on to the next participant, but the comment remained with me.

With my experience as a school-based administrator and leadership coach, I was surprised to hear that this woman believed a leadership role was easier than other positions in a school or other organization. Personally, I worked long hours and found lots of stressors in my roles, but I also experienced many rewards.

I wondered if the administrators this woman observed were very skilled at hiding their stress, if her school site was atypical, or if she did not observe what was really going on in the Principal’s office.

Her response to the question made me consider other common misconceptions that may exist about leaders and leadership. The following list reflects misconceptions I have observed:

  1. Leaders are confident in their decisions. Most successful leaders accept the fact that they make the best decision possible based on available data, and then they go with it. They appear confident in their decisions, but often in the privacy of coaching conversations, I have found leaders question their decisions and sometimes would like to have do-overs.
  2. Leaders enjoy firing and chastising people. I have found few leaders who do not agonize over personnel decisions. With few exceptions, they fully recognize that their hiring and firing decisions and the comments they make affect individuals and families.
  3. Leaders always know the answers. Leaders who believe they know all the answers are often left in the dust by leaders who know they still have a lot to learn. The best leaders look to colleagues, customers and people on their teams for the best solutions.
  4. Leaders don’t really work. They just tell other people what to do. Great leadership requires finding the best person to accomplish a task and giving that person the resources and support to do it. It requires understanding all the factors associated with delegating and following up. It requires finding and analyzing data, and it requires meeting, planning and organizing for future activities. All of those require time and effort. That is work.
  5. Leaders don’t experience the same feelings as other people. Leaders experience the same emotional pain and elation as everyone else. Their roles or their perceptions of their roles may require them to cover some of their emotions. Great leaders understand that their emotional states affect everyone around them. They can’t allow minor slights or even major setbacks to derail efforts to achieve their missions.
  6. Leaders are born to lead. Certainly, some individuals show early signs of leadership. They know how to influence people to take action. However, many leaders do not blossom until later in life when they find a problem or issue that stimulates their passion.
  7. Leaders are the people with a title. This may be the most counterproductive misconception of all. Often, people with titles are not leaders, and people without titles have the greatest leadership skills. Leading is influencing others to act. This skill does not require at title. It requires relationship, understanding other people, and the passion to make a difference. People who can influence others’ opinions and actions are leaders even if they have no title.
  8. The best leaders focus on making everyone happy. Individuals who try to make everyone happy ultimately seem to make no one happy. If a leader does not have the courage to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions, he or she cannot lead effectively.
  9. The best leaders enjoy power and prestige. Leaders may gain certain benefits from their positions. However, the best leaders forgo pretention and focus on their mission and the people who are helping them to achieve it.
  10. Leadership comes from education and time in a job. I have taught college leadership courses, and I genuinely believe they can make leaders better. However, neither college courses nor time in a job makes a leader. It is attitude, willingness to serve and desire to make a difference that allows people to be true leaders.
  11. Leaders have powerful personalities. Having presence, charisma or a strong personality may get everyone’s attention, but it is only when people see what someone stands for or what they want to achieve that they agree to follow a person who wants to influence their actions and opinions.
  12. Leaders do not have to answer to anyone else. Often, more than anyone else, leaders must consider and even acquiesce to opinions and whims of others. Leaders must look to a host of audiences including clients, stockholders, followers, and members of the community for acceptance, approval and agreement. Without those, they are unable to accomplish their tasks.
  13. Leaders should not get “too close” to those around them. It is only through relationship that leaders and followers can function effectively. The best leaders recognize that relationships are essential. They also recognize that they are role models for others. That may limit activities they engage in with others, but it need not reduce the need to care about other individuals and work for their wellbeing.
  14. Leaders focus on fixing what has failed. Great leaders focus on what works rather than trying to fix individual or organizational deficiencies. They need to be aware of failures, but they accomplish more when they work toward excellence rather than the mediocrity that comes from simply getting better.

Leadership invites many paradoxes.

A leader must deal with many stressors but often appear to be stress free. A leader must appear confident in his or her decisions but be able to question their value.  A leader must maintain relationships but he or she cannot focus on trying to make everyone happy. Leaders must be knowledgeable but also be open to opinions and insights of others.

Recognizing these paradoxes allows leaders and those who work with them to let go of misconceptions and deal with setting and accomplishing their goals.

What misconceptions and paradoxes have you observed?


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