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Where Leadership Lies: 8 Leadership Myths That Hold You Back

Are these false assumptions undermining your leadership?

Key points

  • Leadership is not set in stone—it is dynamic and evolves so people can develop their own leadership style.
  • Leadership is not an innate quality restricted to "special" individuals who have all the answers.
  • Everyone can lead, and everyone can learn to do it even better. Practice by seizing opportunities.

We often fall into the trap of thinking that “leadership” is a fixed concept, whereas leadership is, in fact, dynamic and constantly evolving. Type “leadership” into Google, and there are 6,150,000,000 (6 billion and 150 million!) results. No wonder people feel confused about how or where to start—and what to believe. There are so many theories of leadership and endless advice, accompanied by myths and limiting beliefs, that can hold us back.

Working with clients in my coaching practice, I regularly encounter leadership misconceptions, and part of my job is to debunk them to enable growth. Additionally, some sectors of society are particularly prone to accepting these misconceptions as truths.

Here are just eight of the numerous leadership myths that are popularly held to be true. The first four apply to both genders, and 5-8 seem to particularly affect women, marginalized identities, and people from certain cultures.

Myth 1: Leadership Is Innate.

Leadership is not an inborn talent. The notion of "born leaders" is fixed-mindset thinking that limits people from recognizing their potential to develop and improve. Leadership is a learnable set of skills and abilities, and embracing a growth mindset opens the doors to honing one’s leadership skills. With over 60,000 leadership books available on Amazon, and a projected 81 billion dollars spent globally on leadership development in 2024, the market is thriving—because leadership is a skillset that can be cultivated through learning, practice, and experience.

Tip: Mindset is key, so open yourself to growth and continuous development. Read, research, model great leaders, train, practice, act, and believe. If it’s possible for others, it’s possible for you.

Myth 2: Leadership Comes Easy to the Select Few.

The Great Man theory and the myth of effortless leadership by "special" or elite individuals ignores the dedication, practice, and effort required to excel in a leadership role. Effective leaders might make it look easy, but they are committed to improvement and stepping outside their comfort zone. Leadership success stems from effort, perseverance, and deliberate practice—not from special qualities.

Tip: Research on leadership effectiveness emphasizes the importance of consistent practice. What sets excellent leaders apart is their commitment to daily improvement. Engaging in action, experimentation, failure, resilience, learning, and application—all within deliberate leadership practice—are essential elements for success.

Myth 3: Leadership Is Defined by Title.

Leadership transcends job titles and hierarchical positions. Leadership is about influence. When you are leading, you influence and engage others by embodying principles and values that inspire people to move towards a common goal. History is full of influential leaders emerging from diverse backgrounds without traditional titles or ranks—just look at Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg.

Tip: We all lead. Inventory all the different ways you already lead—however small. Role-model, share, and communicate your vision to engage and inspire others to join you in reaching a goal.

Myth 4: Leaders Must Have All the Answers.

One of the biggest misconceptions I hear is that leaders “need to have all the answers.” But getting comfortable with not knowing and failure enables greater learning, resilience, and adaptability. Embracing challenges and uncertainty requires us to operate beyond our comfort zone. Rather than relying solely on their existing knowledge and strengths, effective leaders continuously seek new experiences, learn from what didn’t work, and adapt to evolving circumstances.

Tip: As research consistently affirms, uncertainty and adversity present opportunities for personal growth and development. Embrace challenges—they are essential for learning and for improved leadership performance.

Myth 5: Leadership Is a Solo Endeavor.

Contrary to the lone wolf archetype, leadership is inherently relational. Effective leaders do not go it alone—they know they need the support, engagement, and commitment of others, recognizing the collective effort required to achieve shared goals. Bringing others along and building and leveraging networks, coalitions, and allies are all key to achieving results and having more impact.

Tip: Create and build relationships, allies, coalitions and teams, utilizing everyone’s strengths and capabilities to innovate, deliver, and improve. Strong relationships and networks help you to deliver value and impact.

Myth 6: You Need Permission to Lead.

Leadership isn't contingent upon waiting for authorization or invitation. True leadership entails being visible, seizing opportunities, and taking ownership of our own actions and responsibilities. By recognizing and acting upon opportunities, we can assert our leadership potential and drive positive change.

Tip: You don't have to wait to be asked to lead; you can create your own opportunities. So, seize them. Take ownership and accept accountability—for yourself, your team, and your and their actions.

Myth 7: “I Don’t Match the Profile.”

Leadership is often equated with male stereotypes—characterized by traits like ambition, confidence, decisiveness, action, and assertiveness. Thus, some women (or introverts or certain cultures) struggle to see themselves or identify as leaders. This can also mean that others don’t see them as leaders. Everyone has leadership capabilities, whether through influencing others, demonstrating initiative, or driving towards shared objectives.

Tip: Take an inventory of how you lead and your unique leadership style. Self-awareness is key to acknowledging and embracing your role as a leader. Leadership is continually evolving, allowing ample space for individual leadership styles, behaviors, and preferences to flourish.

Myth 8: “My Work Speaks for Itself.”

So many people rely on their work speaking for itself that they shy away from what they think is boasting. But visibility and relationship-building are essential for career advancement and leadership development. Leadership encompasses a diverse set of skills beyond technical competencies—including building relationships and making you and your work known as part of delivering results and having more impact.

Tip: Employ a range of tools in your leadership repertoire, such as forging relationships, building networks, and using influence and persuasion, to effectively showcase yourself and your work and have more impact.

Setting these leadership myths aside empowers individuals to recognize and step into their leadership more fully. Leadership is dynamic and is fueled through dedication, collaboration, and continuous learning. By challenging misconceptions, we can develop empowered, diverse and effective leaders.

More from Palena R. Neale Ph.D, PCC
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