Leadership Myths and Demons

We think we understand leaders and leadership. And I suppose to some extent we do. But we also work with a lot of leadership mythology-curious ideas developed over time like urban legends-and demons-either blaming leaders for evil in the world or looking upon leadership with suspicion.

Leadership myths are pervasive and persistent. What makes them troubling is that people who believe them usually fail to reach their leadership potential-and they sometimes hold others back as well. The myths and demons get in the way like barriers on an obstacle course.

Consider these myths:

  • Leaders are born.
  • Leaders are men.
  • Leaders are wealthy.
  • Leaders are especially charismatic.
  • Leaders are White.
  • Leaders are superb communicators.
  • Leaders are just managers who have more power.
  • Leadership is authority.
  • Leadership is hierarchical or positional.
  • Leadership can’t be taught.

You may be able to cite single examples for all of these statements, but one example does not make a law. On the other hand, one example to the contrary will invalidate what someone thinks is a law and we can point to plenty of exceptions. None of these statements may be generalized to all leadership in all times and cultures.

For example, I’ve never met a leader who hadn’t been born, so proclaiming “Leaders are born” like it’s a breakthrough discovery is silly. But many people still believe leadership attributes and skills are instilled at birth and that’s it. If you didn’t get the leadership gene from the stork, so the argument goes, you’re never going to be a leader.

This idea is reminiscent of the feudal perspectives of the Middle Ages all the way back to the divine right of kings. But claiming leaders are born and never “made” doesn’t stand the test of experience.

Leaders are men, and wealthy men at that. Oh really? Joan of Arc was neither a man nor wealthy. Same can be said for Harriet Tubman and Mother Teresa. Have a disproportionate number of leaders been men and have many leaders been wealthy? Sure. But this historical fact says more about lack of access for women in certain times and cultures than it does about innate ability. And more than one wife has led from behind the scenes when her husband, the elected or expected leader, wouldn’t or couldn’t lead. Ask Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

Leaders aren’t leaders unless they exude charisma. Wrong again. President Calvin Coolidge was a smart man, but charisma certainly isn’t a word associated with his memory. Charisma isn’t essential. Non-charismatic “Silent Cal” still got a few things done.

Leaders are as different in personality and gifts as the leaves in a forest of trees. Gifted Native American speakers Tecumseh and later Chief Joseph were leaders in a lost cause, and they weren’t White. Neither was Martin Luther King, Jr., an orator of the first rank and the most important leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. The biblical Moses, arguably one of the greatest leaders who ever lived, at least initially struggled with poor communication skills.

Leaders are just hyped-up managers. No, leaders may be good managers, and some managers may possess leadership skills. But leaders are more than just managers with more clout. Leaders lead, and managers, well, they manage. We need them both.

Leadership isn’t just for those who possess formal authority, have amassed power, or hold a position. Talent and tenacity trump titles any day. That’s one lesson from the American Revolutionary War. Ragtag colonists took nearly eight years to do it, but they succeeded in chasing the Redcoats and chastening the King. Women without power or position-yet leaders-from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, worked throughout the Nineteenth Century to secure American women’s right to vote, finally granted in 1920 in the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Even “title-less” leaders get things done.

Consider these demons:

  • Leaders are robber barons.
  • Leaders are anti-democratic.
  • Leadership is Machiavellian, i.e. manipulative.
  • Leadership is tyrannical.
  • Leadership is intimidation or coercion.
  • Leadership is controlling, dictating.
  • Leadership contradicts service or “servanthood.”

For some reason, our ideas about leadership get twisted up with our image of “bad guys” and their desire to conquer the world. Lex Luthor in the Superman movies. Adolph Hitler in real history. Some people can’t seem to think about leaders without wincing. In this view, leaders are self-promoters, “politicians” who can’t be trusted. Only “the people” will ultimately be in the right.

Some of this attitude toward leadership is fostered by American democratic culture. We haven’t fully trusted a leader since we threw off England’s King George and our George left the first presidency.

Some of this suspicious attitude is justifiable. A few leaders haven’t deserved the allegiance and power they commanded or usurped, and some leaders have left lasting bitterness in their wake. Richard Nixon is America’s highest profile recent example. And historically, the world has certainly endured evil leaders-from the Old Testament King Jehoram, about whom it was said, “He passed away, to no one’s regret,” to Genghis Khan to Nero to Pol Pot to Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-il. Sadly, the rogue’s gallery is full.

Dishonest, anti-democratic, manipulative, tyrannical, coercive, and dictatorial demagogues are the bad people. Yet their record shows us morally questionable individuals holding leadership positions, not a record of something intrinsically irredeemable about leadership in general.

Leadership is a tool. As free moral agents human beings can use leadership for good or for evil. Leadership always gets back to character.

As people who can choose, we can choose to lead. None of these common myths or demons ultimately hold water and none of them should stop anyone from becoming a leader if desire and opportunity calls for it.

Part of what makes leadership so fascinating is that leaders come from all walks and byways of life. No one is excluded. For this we can be grateful to God and to a democratic and open country where individuals matter.

Tom Brokaw described an entire generation as leaders. He noted in his book The Greatest Generation that America is losing several thousand per day who survived the Great Depression and World War II. This generation was the “greatest” because they answered the call time and again. They led by example, commitment, and participation. These men and women took the measure of their challenges and in some cases gave “the last full measure” to defend what they believed in.

The question we now face is who will take the Greatest Generation’s place of leadership? It can be you, and false mythologies and demons shouldn’t get in your way.

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