KingChapman Blog

Dispelling the Most Popular Leadership Myths

Posted by Bob Chapman on Oct 10, 2018 5:36:34 PM

KC_Oct - Myths-of-LeadershipWriting in the Financial Times, Simon Caulkin asked a powerful question: “Have we created an unachievable myth of leadership?” His opening paragraph said:

Leadership is possibly the most written, lectured, TED-talked and blogged about topic in management. Companies in the US alone are reckoned to spend $14bn-$20bn on leadership development and training every year. It is a staple of business courses. Yet despite the confidence with which formulae are dispensed for success in transformational, authentic, servant or level-five leadership, to name some current varieties, it may also be the least understood.

Not only are the concepts of leadership misunderstood, but confidence in leaders is also low. Calkin wrote:

Consider: never has public trust in corporate leaders been so low. That may be no surprise. Among contributory causes to the crash of 2008, leadership failure ranks high, as it does in the rule of greed and the rise of inequality. Other leaders do not trust them: witness the increasing speed with which boards push peers out of top office. That is no surprise either, given the finding of a survey of research studies of leadership compiled by the Center for Creative Leadership, a training provider, that half of all managers and leaders are seen as “a disappointment, incompetent, a mis-hire or a complete failure” in their current role. In another study, 35 percent of US employees said they would forgo a pay raise to see their direct supervisors fired.

He went on to ask, “Have we created unrealistic expectations that those at the top will never be able to match?” Clearly, Caulkin presents impressive data about disappointments with leadership and raises an interesting question about myths regarding leadership.

Ranking of Most Popular Myths Regarding Leadership

Caulkin’s article raised an interesting question for me: What are the most popular myths about leadership? Using a wholly unscientific method, I did a Google search for articles, blogs and books on this subject. As is the case on any topic even remotely related to leadership, there was a plethora of materials. I then ranked the number of times a myth was mentioned. According to this ranking the most popular leadership myths are:

  1. Great leaders are born, not made
  2. Position makes one a leader
  3. Best leaders are extroverts and/or charismatic
  4. Leadership and management are the same

Let's address each of these, one at a time.

Great Leaders are Born, Not Made

The assertion that great leaders are born not made was an early theory in the academic studies of leadership. This theory was called the Great Man Theory. As the name suggests, this theory assumed that leaders were men, who were born into prominent families and attended prestigious schools. Their success as leaders was attributed to their being “born as great men” within the social context of that time. At first blush I thought of this as quaint theory which should be written about in historical novels. Then upon reflection I realized that while this philosophy has been long been discredited, the influence still continues with many people who think that good leadership is based on capabilities that people are “born with.” This belief of “born leaders” persists in conversations today, even though it has long been discredited.

Position Makes One a Leader

The assumption that the position makes one a leader is a myth, since in most companies the promotion into management positions is based on capabilities of management, not leadership.

Nonetheless, the assumption that a person holding a position of power makes one a leader is alive and well. If you ask people in an organization who the leaders are, many will point to the senior executives. Most people in an organization do not know what executives actually do, so they assume it must be leadership. To complicate matters, organizations frequently use the word leader in job descriptions and names of management teams. This is our regional leadership team…this is our lead geologist…she is our group leader. While the use of the title “leader” has increased, there is little evidence that the number of leaders or the effectiveness of leadership has actually increased. That is because being called a leader and being a leader are worlds apart.

A serious downside of using the word leader in the job title is that people actually start to pretend that the person’s position makes them a leader. Further, those in an organization pretending that someone is a leader and providing leadership is an equally foolish act. Those working for the “pretend leader” usually see the situation for what it is long before the peers or the boss of the pretender. A particularly unworkable form of pretending is denial. That is, ignoring the data and pretending that you do not see the pretender. Another tip is if you find yourself talking about a leader’s potential (unless they are young or new to the role), chances are you are dealing with a pretender. The concept of potential does not occur when describing a person or business that is producing good results.

Best Leaders are Charismatic and/or Extraverts

For decades there has been a concerted effort by academics and others to identify the personal attributes of successful leaders. Enormous attention has been paid to a myriad of personal attributes and characteristics. The premise was that once these attributes were identified, then leadership development and selection would be more predictable. Theories have sprung up in attempts to scientifically document the patterns successful leaders use, e.g., charisma and extraversion.

Unfortunately, all this effort to identify attributes like charisma and extraversion has not worked out as hoped. Countless experiments have been conducted in companies, consultancies, and research institutes to determine the “silver bullets of leadership.” An impressive array of psychological tests has also been developed. In addition, there is an abundance of academic research in universities on the topic of leadership, but the application of this research to leadership in business is at best obscure. While there continues to be many who espouse the various trait theories, there is little evidence of validity as evidenced by a recent book by Jeffery Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer is on the faculty at Stanford Business School and is a widely respected authority. He writes:

Characterizing leaders’ behavior as somehow dependent on inherent traits provides an easy excuse for avoiding the sort of behavior and strategies that may be required to get things done.

Leadership and Management are the Same

This myth is widespread and has serious consequences. Given this faulty context, it is hard to think of leadership as distinct and independent from management. The consequences are assumptions that:

  • If a person is in a management position, they must be a leader
  • The higher the management position in the organization, the stronger the leadership skills
  • Front-line employees are not managers and therefore cannot be leaders
  • Leadership development programs should only be made available to managers

The confusion between leadership and management is quite strong and may be inadvertently reinforced by many business schools. John Kotter’s assessment is that 95% of the curriculum at Harvard Business School is on management, not leadership. It is not only MBA programs which lack this content. The other professional training programs from which executives come also lack leadership training, e.g., accounting, human resources, information technology, law, etc.

For a more thorough conversation on this topic see Are Leadership and Management the Same?

Impact of Myths

I have frequently encountered the myths discussed in my consulting and course leading. It has led me to wonder about the impact of myths such as these. While there are a number of impacts to consider, the one that stands out for me is the confusion that exists about what leadership is and how leadership can improve the future, performance and vibrancy of an organization. With that in mind, let me share some thinking about what constitutes the kind of leadership which can make a difference to organizations needing growth and change.

What is Leadership?

Given our discussion of the most popular myths, you could be wondering what leadership is. In fact, in his article which was discussed earlier, Caulkin wrote, “That may be because no one can pin down what leadership is. That leaves us with the question “what is leadership”? My answer is that it depends on the context. The context is decisive in determining what is expected and needed from leadership. The context I am interested in requires large scale change or organizational transformation. These changes are needed for the organization to have dramatic growth, innovation and performance increases. This context calls for transformational leadership. Chris Duprey asserts that transformational leaders are people who:

  • Inspire others;
  • Develop and articulate a vision or plan;
  • Establish and maintain a positive environment within a group or organization;
  • Inspire the growth and development of their people;
  • Show trust by delegating authority and underwriting decisions made; and
  • Truly care about the organization and the people within it.

I assert that a transformational leader inspires extraordinary actions of others to achieve excellent results. Further, a transformational leader acts to change the organizational context and culture in order to sustain the excellent level of results over time.

You may ask, where does transformational leadership begin? I assert that transformational leadership begins with intense commitment to achieving the results needed to create value for the organization. This intense focus on value creation is a core commitment of the transformational leaders I have been privileged to work with. Transformational leaders know that a key element in creating value begins with their organization and predictably delivering results. Further value is created when results are achieved far beyond what is expected and what competitors are achieving. When extraordinary results are being achieved, then leaders have excellent opportunities to speak with their various stakeholders regarding the exciting future of the organization. A track record of results can be sustained when there is strong leadership who become the source of that organization achieving significant results and creating value. To be sustainable, these leaders need to be found throughout the organization. For a more thorough discussion, see Chapman’s “What is Leadership?"


In my informal survey the highest-ranking myths of leadership are:

  1. Great leaders are born, not made
  2. Position makes one a leader
  3. Best leaders are extroverts and/or charismatic
  4. Leadership and management are the same

These myths, based on my experience, are “alive and well” in corporations in western countries. Further, my assertion is that transformational leadership is needed in many organizations today. Transformational leadership involves inspiring extraordinary actions of others to achieve excellent results.


downlodable_ExecutiveChallengesGrowing a business is a daunting task for many, if not most, executives. While growth is considered fun, and what executives dream of being engaged in, achieving sustainable growth is another story. 

Download our PDF: "Executive Challenges" and learn the Execution of Growth Strategies and Organizational Transformation.

Download Now


Topics: Leadership