Common Assumptions About Leadership And Why They Are Wrong

By: Eric Betts

What is leadership? Is it stature? Not at all! One can have an extremely small stature but can make a big impact, as renowned author and leadership coach John Maxwell points out. He uses the example of Mother Teresa. She was a small woman with a big impact. While many Catholic orders were declining, Mother Theresa’s influence reached far beyond her immediate environment. Mother Theresa’s followers served 25 countries on 5 continents. He says, “When she spoke, people listened and respected even if they disagreed.”

Is leadership all about position or impressive titles? Not at all. Titles buy time — either to increase your level of influence with others or undermine it. Many great leaders throughout history never held political office, such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ben Franklin who has the same historical status as America’s founding presidents but never ran for president. We can say the same for Patrick Henry. Harriet Tubman also comes to mind.

Maxwell also asks, “Can leadership be awarded, appointed, or assigned?” Is a person with business skill or expertise automatically a leader? I think we know the answer, but this question should be probed with more frequency when building an organization. This question may determine the rise or fall of an organization.

The ability to manage a company or organization does not translate into leadership. Leaders do more than just distribute responsibilities and oversee how they are carried out, they also motivate, inspire, develop, and make people better. They help people buy into a larger vision, to appreciate the role they play in the vision, and to believe in themselves. They also create more leaders.

It is possible that a good manager can become a good leader; and it is possible for management responsibilities to be wisely granted to a great leader. It is also true that because one is a fantastic leader, it does not mean that they have great organizational and management skill. However, a great leader lacking in any area is always self-aware. Limitations in logistical expertise, technological abilities, research and development skills, do not prevent one from being a great leader. A leader knows his area of weakness and is able to see the strengths of others. They show that they are great at building strong teams to compensate for weaknesses.

The question is then asked, “What are the essentials that make a good manager into a great leader?” Tom Rath said it best in his volume on leadership entitled, The One Thing. He shares with his readers how to make the leap from good management to influential leadership:

“This ability to cut through individual differences and fasten them upon those few emotions or needs that all of us share is at the core of great leadership. This ability is called empathy. No matter how admirable his achievements, or how valuable his experience and expertise, when a leader lacks extended empathy, when he loses sight of those things we all share, he loses the ability to lead.”

Great leaders know how people feel and what they fear. Their understanding of the feelings of the individuals within the group help them motivate and inspire their group. Their recognition of those fears within the group helps them to know how far and how fast they can change or how to help them to either overcome or manage those fears.

John Maxwell, identifies a tried and true test concerning the leap from management to leadership. He writes the following in his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership:

“The best way to test whether a person can lead rather than just manage is to ask him to create positive change.” He also states, “The true measure of leadership is influence…If you don’t have influence, you will never be able to lead others.”

How does one who desires to be an effective leader, develop the capacity to influence others?

Leadership expert Mark Sanborn answers that question, “Look for opportunities to lead. Don’t wait for someone to bring them to you. What needs to be done at your organization? What problems need solutions? What opportunities could be seized? What could be improved? Initiative is a pre-requisite to effective influence. Look around. Pay attention. Get involved.”

The capacity for empathy and influence for change are the two driving forces that are needed for a leader to leap from management to effective leadership. Sometimes leaders have a natural ability in this area, while some grow into it. Others must work hard to develop it. However, one must have a reason for why they desire to lead. There must be something larger than themselves that drives them to do what they do. What is the change that the leader is seeking? What is the greater good that the leader is working toward? Is the leader simply using people to achieve their own personal ambitions with little regard for the success of those within the group? Does the leader believe in those that are being led? These are the questions that must be asked when one has the desire to lead others or when seeking out that leader within a group or community.

If the leader is primarily concerned about personal success and goals, has no empathy, is simply looking for the help of others as a means to a personal end, this attitude will be felt by the group and ultimately undermine the leadership dynamic in the organization. If a leader has little regard for the betterment of others or for the well-being of subordinates, this mindset will infect others. Those who are among the subordinates will eventually adopt an every-man-for-himself mentality as well, and the success of the whole will be severely compromised. As a result, those within the group will begin to think that the leader will not look out for them, so they must look out for themselves. This bad energy is hurtful to an organization’s goals. This reminds us of the ancient saying: “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”

Even though there may be titles held by people within an organization, if the title does not translate into leadership, the true leaders will emerge while not necessarily bearing a leadership title. This is where many group conflicts emerge. The battle will be waged between those with the most influence and those with the fanciest titles. Mark Sanborn explains why titles do not automatically make a person a leader. He says “Titles should confirm leadership but they can never bestow it…Leadership should be borne out of a desire to contribute rather than simply achieve.” Bad leaders look for what they can take from a person, but great leaders are always looking for what they can give. Followers are less concerned about how much a person with a title knows than they are about how much the title-wearer cares. If they know you care, they will look to you to lead. Bad leaders are always looking for ways to receive help, but great leaders are always looking for ways to offer help.

So what are the marks of a leader? John Quincy Adams summarized it in just a few words: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” If one is a great and effective leader, people will not feel demoralized, demeaned, taken for granted, unappreciated, and ready to quit after being in the presence of the one who has taken the responsibility to lead. Those who have these negative qualities and are seeking to lead, will find that those who follow will often contribute as little as possible toward a desired goal, and will take their skills to a more positive environment where they can grow. Their mental and emotional energy becomes so drained that they incapable of focusing on the goal and working toward it with enthusiasm. An effective leader is a good listener and is able to connect with people’s lives, hopes, and dreams.

Who is the leader? When they speak, people listen. When they lead, others follow. People know they care. Inspiration, empathy, influence, and integrity are the key ingredients that are must-haves in order to go from good management to effective leadership.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University