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The Biggest Myth About Leadership

Leadership is not something that leaders do alone.

Key points

  • Leadership is co-constructed by leaders and followers working together.
  • We are a leader-centric culture: giving leaders more than their share of praise for success and blame for failures.
  • Unfortunately, our focus on leaders causes a neglect of follower/team development.
  • Goal alignment, strategic delegation, and developing the leader-follower relationship are keys to success.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels
Source: Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Do leaders do leadership?

The answer is clear, but not straightforward. Leadership is not something that leaders do. Leadership is co-constructed by leaders and followers working together. Moreover, followers can lead, even in the absence of identifiable leaders. And, it gets more complex because the context also matters. In certain situations, followers may play more of the leadership role than the designated leader because they have some particular knowledge or skill that is needed at the moment.

Yes, leaders can engage in “leader-like” behaviors. They can try to inspire, motivate, cajole, or compel followers to take action. But without the followers actually taking action, there is no leadership.

We put too much of the leader in “leadership.”

The U.S., and much of the world, are very leader-centric in its thinking. What that means is that we give leaders far more credit than they deserve when things go right, and we also give them the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong. Leadership scholar James Meindl called this our “romance of leadership.” As evidence, look at the outrageous salaries given to CEOs and other top-level leaders when things go right and note that these same individuals may get quickly fired when things go wrong. But, it’s actually much more complicated. Even a great leader can fail if the team doesn’t have the capacity to get the job done, or if circumstances (often beyond the control of the leader) make failure imminent.

The lack of balance hurts.

Our over-emphasis on leaders in the leadership equation also causes us to look primarily to leaders as the key to success. The U.S. spends billions of dollars on developing leaders, sending potential leaders to training programs of all sorts, providing leaders with executive coaches, offering bonuses, etc. We put very few resources into developing the rest of the team. The idea of “follower development” is nearly unheard of, yet we know that making the team stronger is going to have a bigger impact on performance than making the leader better.

What to do?

Align purpose and goals.

Get leaders and followers on the same page when it comes to why they are engaged in what they are doing. Sure, success means that everyone gets paid and the organization continues to exist, and hopefully get stronger, but go beyond that. Focus on how attaining goals serves not just the organization and the leader, but how it can benefit team members. For example, spend time and resources on employee career development.

Followers need to be encouraged to share the leadership.

Empower followers through strategic delegation. Make decisions openly and jointly. The best leadership development programs involve all team members.

Leaders need to focus on relationships.

A pathway to success is to develop high-quality relationships between leaders and followers, and among team members. A shared understanding of everyone’s needs, expectations, and goals is critical for effective team functioning, and in retaining team members.

References

Meindl, J.R, Ehrlich, S.B., & Dukerich, J.R. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.

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