The Leadership Myth Article by: Joe Caruso

Recently I talked to a significant group of business leaders in an effort to help them understand their roles as leaders in their large metropolitan community.

“What, above all else, determines the effectiveness of a leader?” I asked. I thought this was as good a question as any to start off the day’s program.

One at a time, people began calling out admirable character traits.

“Good listening skills.”
“Ability to make good decisions.”
“Strong values.”
“Clear thinking.”
“Inclusion and consideration.”

And so on …

I was careful to record each response on the nice flip chart. Once the group seemed satisfied with the long list I had dutifully recorded, I put the cap back on my pen and thought about how best to proceed.

“Hmmm,” I said as we all considered our list. “These are great qualities for a leader to have, however, my question was, ‘What, above all else, determines the effectiveness of a leader?’ ”

I decided that perhaps it would help them if we approached this from a different angle.

“Let’s consider Adolf Hitler. While it can be argued that he was evil incarnate, wasn’t he in fact quite effective as a leader for quite a while?”

I could see that this question created some discomfort in the group. When I asked them why they were uncomfortable with my question, they let me know in no uncertain terms that Hitler, or any other “bad-guy,” could not be considered as an effective leader.

After much discussion (some of it quite heated), the group decided that their concept of leadership was a noble and highly regarded mantelpiece ideal, and they just couldn’t comprehend how it could be applied to “bad” people. They truly felt that leadership, after all, is a noble role to be bestowed upon only the most honorable well-deserved.

At that moment, my heart went out to each and every one of those community leaders. You see, I knew why they were so conflicted. While their brains and experience knew that it was possible for bad people to be effective leaders, all of their recent training had taught them that leadership was determined by only positive characteristics.

Having been in this position so many times before, I knew that I risked seeming the heretic in the eyes of the group, but I also knew that to be responsible to my charge of teaching them the true essence of leadership, I would have to help them understand that leadership and honorable characteristics are not inextricably attached.

So what did I end up sharing with such an esteemed group of leaders about the essence of leadership? Simply this: Above all else — the thing that determines the effectiveness of a leader … is the willingness of others to follow.

People could embody the epitome of honesty, compassion, integrity, and all the rest, but if they were to turn around and look behind them and see that no one is following — they need to do the math … they are not leading.

I am not in any way saying that I wouldn’t like all leaders to be honest, compassionate, loving, and caring. I’m simply pointing out the popular, conventional disconnect about leadership that I call The Leadership Myth. As a society we are doing ourselves a great disservice by confusing our concepts of goodness with our concepts of what makes an effective leader. By doing so, we run the dangerous risk of creating a society of nice people who can’t lead.

We’ve come to this point honestly. We are attracted to the concept that all leaders should be good and that if we are to learn to be effective leaders, we should learn to also be good leaders. The problem is that in reality, it is a proven fact that the effectiveness of a leader does not rely on the level of goodness of the leader.

Goodness is an honorable, laudable, and respectable goal. I personally believe (and have made an honest living showing) that these human traits, combined with a great understanding of why people choose to follow, can make incredibly effective leaders who will edify all whom they touch as they help to create a better future for those who willingly follow. However, all of the goodness in the world doesn’t necessarily create an effective leader any more than the lack of goodness can prevent one from leading. This is the biggest problem I have with the Leadership Myth as it’s taught in our society today.

In business, parenting, or politics, effective leaders throughout history have demonstrated the following five abilities:

  1. Leaders concisely communicate the ideal in mythological, yet simple, terms.
  2. Leaders convey that they identify with the “pain” of their people.
  3. Leaders simply, clearly, and emphatically communicate the goal in a compelling manner.
  4. Leaders project the power of faith, hope, and courage in the face of adversity.
  5. Leaders consistently and relentlessly demonstrate the strength of their convictions.

In an effort to help those of you who are already good people and would like to become more effective leaders, I would like to further examine each of these elements one at a time.

1. Leaders concisely communicate the ideal in mythological, yet simple, terms.

Myths are stories. In fact, the word myth comes from the Greek word mythos, which means “story”. Myths are not necessarily true but are greater and more powerful than truth. Myths drive cultures. This is how CEOs and presidents have been credited for turning a people, a country, or a business around. If you pay close attention to the transformational time, they were able not only to change or affect specifics, they were also able to drive new stories and meanings into the culture that drove the key changes within the culture.

2. Leaders convey that they identify with the “pain” of their people.

Any good psychiatrist or psychoanalyst will tell you that one of the most important maxims of his or her work is to “Honor the pain, not the problem.” Every good salesperson knows that the more that customers think you understand their pain, the more likely they’ll be willing to trust your recommended remedy. And every effective leader knows that people will be far more willing to follow a leader whom they believe understands them. I’ll guarantee that any leader who fails to empathize before he or she criticizes has few willing followers.

3. Leaders simply, clearly, and emphatically communicate the goal in a compelling manner.

Most people think that their job is to develop the plan. However, this isn’t true. What is incumbent upon the leader is to be clear and unwavering about the goal. Consider when President Kennedy told us we were going to put a man on the moon, or when President Reagan defiantly commanded, “Tear down that wall.” They didn’t tell us how these things were going to happen. They knew that if their message was compelling enough, others would help make the goal a reality.

4. Leaders project the power of faith, hope, and courage in the face of adversity.

Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony. These are people who demonstrated unwavering conviction in times that threatened all they believed in. Yet, they all prevailed. The German philosopher Hegel said, “Struggle is the law of growth.” Leaders need to demonstrate that they have struggled for their growth to the point of developing personal and compelling reasons for their convictions. They then need to communicate their experiences, as well as their convictions, in a way that is mythical in the minds of their followers.

5. Leaders consistently and relentlessly demonstrate the strength of their convictions.

In the absence of certainty, we require faith and hope in order to act with conviction. When we are trying to create a different outcome that doesn’t currently exist, we need to actually believe that it can. This is where a leader is critical in helping us believe in our goals and ourselves. Without such belief and hope, we would not be able to do what is necessary to create the desired new outcome.

By definition, leadership is determined by the willingness of others to follow. Unfortunately, history has shown us time and again that bad people can have the ability to get people to willingly follow them. Throughout time, in business and in battle, we have seen countless examples of how leadership was determined more by one’s ability to influence than by one’s character. This is why those leaders who have been pure of heart are so few and far between. Bad people will continue to influence with varying levels of success. That is why it’s critically important that we understand the true reasons people willingly follow and the only true way to help good people become great leaders.

Learn more about Joe Caruso and his powerful program The Principles of Authentic Power and the Caruso Leadership Institute.