Beyond Authority: Debunking the Top 3 Leadership Myths

read ( words)

Have you noticed that across the business world people are recognizing that we are fast outgrowing the thinking and language of hierarchy, but we're also struggling to create a new, more collaborative future? The challenge for all is to figure out how to operate in this emerging paradigm-the one that our own efforts are helping to shape.

As I work with top leaders in organizations and then, independently, the staff they lead, I'm frequently struck by the gulf that occurs between the two in the early stages of change. Typically what the leaders are trying to offer employees is very different than what's being received by them. While a significant number of leaders begin with optimism about their efforts to engage everyone's greatest wisdom, staff members can be slow to recognize and trust the intent of initiatives undertaken to empower them.

Many employees simply don't believe that their insights and decisions will really be valued so they continue to hold back. Some may be unwilling or feel unprepared to share in responsibility for what the group creates. In their hesitancy they actually work against the changes and make it more difficult to include them in creative and decision-making roles.

When members of either group become frustrated during the creation of a new working order it's easy to resort to what they know best-the behaviors of the boss-subordinate relationship. Those with formal authority may again feel compelled to take up too much space (by using commanding words and actions), and followers too little space (by silencing their voices or talking only in whispers amongst themselves). When this occurs, leaders once more feel all the weight of responsibility on their shoulders, as well as the exhaustion that comes with constant staff resistance-a resistance they can no longer understand.

What accounts for the tension and the different perceptions that exist between two groups who must rely upon each other to maximize success?

Unfortunately, many myths and "old truths" about leadership linger and keep us caught in the snare of hierarchy. At every level of an organization these beliefs undermine a company's potential greatness and cause unnecessary stress and dissatisfaction. These myths must be ferreted out and talked about in order for businesses to successfully, and more effortlessly, create a collaborative and effective culture.



What happens when people throughout the organization believe leaders must have formal authority? People see leadership as a position, rather than as an action or behavior accessible to everyone. It invites those with formal authority to value their own opinions over others, and it keeps people who don't have it from stepping to the plate and sharing in responsibility for the success of the organization. It divides the powerful from the powerless, and creates the tendency for the people in these two camps to lob blame back and forth across the fence that separates them. Each group holds the other responsible for the dynamics between them, and for bringing about the needed change.


Do leaders need to have all the answers? People tend to answer this question with a resounding "no," but in everyday business the myth creeps subtly in to do its damage. Many leaders secretly harbor feelings of inadequacy and incompetence as they try to speak with unconvincing expertise and authority on every aspect of their complex business. At the same time, front line workers fault their leaders for lacking their own particular brand of genius and, consequently, ridicule or work against their efforts. Employees may almost arrogantly wait for a leader's plan to fail, and take no responsibility for failures when they do occur.


Although at first blush it makes sense that leaders ought to know how they are going to achieve their visions, the speed of change in today's world makes it prudent to reassess the "rightness" of the organization's direction after each step taken and to make regular "course corrections." Equally important, as things become increasingly complex, and people place value on contributing in meaningful ways to accomplishing a shared vision, it is crucial to consistently include the wisdom that exists everywhere in the organization.

Sadly, efforts to create this agile, responsive and inclusive workplace can be misunderstood by many employees if they are not given the chance to really understand why and how things unfold as they do. Rather than seeing themselves as co-creators of the organization's success, many feed upon the idea that management already has all the answers and is "holding out on them" in some important and harmful ways, or that leadership is inept for not fully charting the course before beginning a new initiative.


At Highest Vision we believe that leadership today is less about having the right answers and more about having the right questions. The next time you see an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue in your organization, consider posing one of these questions to get the conversation started. Include everyone you can in the process. (In large organizations it helps to host groups that are comprised of both participants who have and do not have formal authority, and to keep each group small enough for genuine dialogue to occur.)

1. What stories about leadership are told within our organization? What different perspectives exist?

2. How can we ensure that everyone feels like a valued contributor to our shared success?

3. How can we invite people to act upon their right and their responsibility to be a fully participating member of the organization?

4. What will entice people to contribute their own knowledge and experience?

5. How can leadership be exhibited by every person in our organization?

6. What will it take to create relationships where people ask for your ideas and offer you theirs?

7. How can we make sure that information and ideas are flowing freely?

8. What is needed to ensure that decisions are able to be made as close to the front line as possible?

9. What can leaders do to challenge the myths and invite forth everyone's full participation?

10. What can staff members do to challenge the myths and invite forth everyone's full participation?


As our organizations increase in size and complexity, "quality of life" issues gain attention, and our businesses continue to shape the world in ever greater ways, successful companies must actively engage every member of their teams in both formal and informal ways.

So what can you do to move beyond the myths of leadership discussed here? Begin by recognizing that if you wait for someone else to take the first step-no steps are taken. With or without formal authority, find your voice and use it well. Ask provocative questions that invite open discussion and the sharing of ideas. Risk joining the conversation and shouldering the responsibility for what we create together.

SUSAN J. SCHUTZ FOUNDED HIGHEST VISION IN 1999. Highest Vision services ? executive coaching, leadership development, and team building -- reflect her deep conviction that professionals can be attentive to their "bottom lines" while also creating lives worth living and businesses that contribute to the good of all.

For a free subscription to VantagePoint, Highest Vision's free E-zine for trailblazers in life and business, go to

Rate this article
Current Rating 0 stars (0 ratings)
Click the star above that marks your rating