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9 Leadership Myths–& How to Overcome Them

9 Leadership Myths–& How to Overcome Them

These nine myths can hamstring you, your company, and your employees. And here’s how to get beyond them.

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Every age has its leadership myths. Thousands of years ago, the ability to lead was thought to be conferred by the gods. In the 1840s, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle created his “Great Man Theory,” which held that leaders have special powers and a special place in society – and that the rest of us have a special obligation to defer to them.

Here are nine myths that leaders tell themselves today – and what they should be saying instead.

1. I am a leader because I have been a leader before.

This is a blanket myth about the primacy of experience – that the only people capable of leadership are those who have done it before.  However, experience is valuable only when one learns from it, with humility and maturity, by recognizing that each company, team, colleague and situation is different.  Many, many leaders are unable to forget the rote experiences of their pasts, and act on auto-pilot.

Ask yourself: How can you learn which experiences to forget?

2. I am so busy/important/able-to-focus-on-many-things-at-once that I often multi-task.

Your main “task” as a leader is to enable others to get things done. Checking your email during an important conversation with a direct report does not do this. Leadership demands that you be fully present, yet too many leaders are distracted during key discussions, decisions, and developments. How do you remain present while leading?

3. I don’t have time to develop my leadership.

Really?  At what point will you be less busy?  What is the cost if your leadership skills cannot stay slightly ahead of your company?

4. Leaders are born, not made. I don’t think leadership can be learned.

While not everyone is capable of being a leader, or willing to make the required tradeoffs, leadership is an “observable, learnable set of practices,” according to “The Leadership Challenge,” by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.  “The belief that leadership can’t be learned is a powerful deterrent to leadership development,” they write. How do you learn about your leadership?

5. My people tell me the truth about what’s going on in the organization.

Perhaps they do.  However, given the nature of power and authority, it is naïve to believe your people will bring you the truth easily, consistently, and without bias – unless you help them by actively seeking this kind of communication without punishing them for the content.  How do you encourage others to bring you bad news?

6. As a leader, I must always be “on.”

While it is true that leaders are physically scrutinized more than non-leaders, it is a myth that a leader must actively “project” leadership at all times.  When a leader feels obliged to constantly “perform,” there is little room left over for authenticity, reflection, and mistakes.  Sometimes the most appropriate approach is to turn leadership “off” so that others may step up to the challenge. How does your leadership style create space for others to lead?

7. I started the company/organization/team/office; therefore, I have the right to lead it.

Being present at the start of something entitles you to say, “I was here at the beginning.” Remaining in charge over time, legitimately, requires a continued demonstration of worthiness. Founders need to put the interests of the group above their personal interests. Sometimes this comes only with conscious effort.  Tenure means tenure, not leadership.  To avoid this myth, ask yourself, “How do I continually earn the right to lead what I started?”

8. I have to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, lead by example, etc.

This is true – as long as you are engaged in the right activities. Often this myth motivates leaders to work on non-leaderships activities and to focus on problems that should rightly be left to others.  “Leading by example” must be demonstrated with leadership tasks (decisions, priorities, accountabilities, etc.)  Are you leading with your own work, or the work of others?

9. Leaders are fearless

Nonsense.  Fear is natural and necessary, and cannot be eliminated.  Consider the perspective of writer David Whyte: Fears need to be identified so that we “are not blinded when we face an unknown.”  We do not have to overcome our fears; we need to know what we are afraid of.  This requires courage, a word that originally means heart.  To be courageous, therefore, means to be heartfelt.

Whyte is correct.  Ask yourself, “What fills me wholeheartedly?”

The answer you find will be the core of your leadership – not some myth.

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9 Life Lessons for Every Entrepreneur

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9 Life Lessons for Every Entrepreneur

Here’s a set of simple rules to live and work by–from a very unexpected source.

Gordon DeanGetty

Gordon Dean circa 1957

Gordon Dean was an American lawyer and prosecutor whose distinguished career was fairly typical for Washington types. He went to work for the Justice Department under President Franklin Roosevelt, taught in the law schools at Duke University and the University of Southern California. He was appointed as one of the original commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1949 by President Harry Truman, eventually becoming its chairman from 1950-53.

In short, he’s hardly the usual suspect to offer entrepreneurs advice in 2012. Stick with me.

When Dean died in a plane crash in 1958, it’s said that among his personal effects was an envelope with nine life lessons scribbled on the back. These lessons aren’t about the law, or atomic energy, or foreign relations. Rather, they represent wisdom that should be shared and used by people everywhere.

These are his superb lessons:

  1. Never lose your capacity for enthusiasm.
  2. Never lose your capacity for indignation.
  3. Never judge people. Don’t type them too quickly. But in a pinch, never first assume that a man is bad; first assume that he is good and that, at worst, he is in the gray area between bad and good.
  4. Never be impressed by wealth alone or thrown by poverty.
  5. If you can’t be generous when it’s hard to be, you won’t be when it’s easy.
  6. The greatest builder of confidence is the ability to do something–almost anything–well.


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7 Tips for Creating Your Own Destiny

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7 Tips for Creating Your Own Destiny

Are you working on your life or just in it? Here is the perspective and method you need to plan and execute the life and career worthy of your potential.

Boat to Your Future


Too many people whine about not having the life they want. The main reason people fall short of their own expectations is the same reason most companies fail to achieve their objectives: poor planning and execution. In fact, I am amazed at how many successful executives create strategy for their business, leaving their life to chance. Often it’s more comfortable (note I didn’t say easier) to complain and blame outside factors for lack of accomplishment or unhappiness than to take time to work on life rather than in it.

I choose otherwise. A close entrepreneur friend, J, and I are taking our annual four days away to determine our futures and hold each other accountable. Here are the tips that will assure us of success. 

1. Plan a Preferred Future

As Lewis Carroll said: If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there. Both J and I are close to 50, so our 60th birthdays are the milestone for this journey. Twelve years is plenty of time to make course corrections and absorb any external factors thrown at us. Our planning will be specific and measurable. We’ll take time to examine and discuss the details of every aspect of our lives, personal and professional, to achieve integrated success and happiness. 

2. Be Pragmatic

Neither of us will be playing for the NBA at our age (or my height). The future has to reflect what is physically possible with available resources and limitations. Pragmatism isn’t in itself restrictive, however; J and I will harness our creativity to design aspirational futures that exploit every opportunity and asset we have. We’ll also create filters to keep us from wasting time and energy on what’s unachievable or irrelevant. 

3. Decide the Who, Not the What

We’re defining who we want to be at 60, not what we want to be doing. The whocenters on passion, core competencies, and core satisfaction, such as material requirements. If I know who I truly want to be, I can detail what to do, own, resources I need, etc. I can also determine what not to do, own, etc., focusing time and resources where required.


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Positive Thinking: How to Change Your Future

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Positive Thinking: How to Change Your Future

Want to be more successful? Change the way you view the world by adopting these 10 beliefs.

Positive Thinking Wall


If there were only one thing that I could communicate to readers, it would be this all-important observation:

The results that you get in business (and in life) are simply a byproduct of your beliefs.

Human beings all live in a cycle, in which beliefs and results are inextricably linked.  Here’s how it works:

  • Your beliefs determine how you feel about each situation, because those beliefs tell you what each situation means.
  • Your emotions (and attitude) determine how well (or badly) you’ll perform in any given situation.
  • Your performance, naturally enough, is directly connected to your results. Though there may be other factors in play, it’s only your performance over which you have control.
  • Finally, your performance reinforces your beliefs, in either a negative or positive way.

The following diagram encapsulates this process:

Expectations vs. Reality

To illustrate how this works, I’ll use an example from the world of sales.

Imagine a salesman who must do cold calling to build up a sales pipeline. This salesman has a deeply held belief that “if, first thing in the morning, I get 10 rejections in a row, it means I’m going to have a bad day and not make any sales.”

The moment that salesman approaches that “10 rejection” threshold, he begins to adopt an apprehensive attitude, wondering whether the 10 rejections will “prove” that he’s going to have a bad day.

He begins to feel fear and defensiveness, which immediately creep into his voice. He starts thinking about his “bad day” rather than listening to the customer. His apprehensiveness virtually guarantees that he’ll get the (ominous) 10th rejection–at which point his emotional state (which is already low) will plummet further.

The sales rep is now absolutely sure that he’s going to have a bad day. His despair makes him even less effective.  After a few hours, he stops cold calling, having “proven” his belief. And then, the next day, he starts the process again, worried about those all-important “10 rejections.”

In other words, his beliefs are creating a future of failure.

Hanging On to Bad Beliefs

You’d be surprised how many people hang on to beliefs that create failure–without realizing that their beliefs are just as unrealistic as the “10 rejections” superstition. I couldn’t possibly go through the entire list, but here are three that I hear a lot:

  • Mondays are always depressing
  • The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
  • Life sucks, and then you die.

The absolute worst example I ever saw was a guy at a nearby lake who was fishing with his shirt off. He had a tattoo on his shoulder that read “Born Loser.” True story.

Anyway, I don’t want to belabor the point. What’s important here is to adopt beliefs that create a brighter and better future.

This is essential, because just as lousy beliefs put you into a descending cycle–where failure becomes ever easier–powerful beliefs can put you into an ascending cycle, where success becomes easier.

With that in mind, here are 10 beliefs that, in my view, consistently create positive emotions, better performance, and much better results:

  • I always act with a purpose.
  • I take responsibility for my results.
  • I stretch myself past my limits daily.
  • I don’t wait for perfection; instead, I act now.
  • I learn more from my failures than my successes.
  • I take my job seriously, but I do not take myself too seriously.
  • I use rejection to renew my humility and sharpen my objectivity.
  • I use both negative and positive feedback to keep on target.
  • I am careful about what I put into my mind and body.
  • I seek out people who are similarly motivated to improve themselves.

I wish I could say that I thought of all of the above myself, but the cycle described above and the “success beliefs” that follow are actually based on a life-changing conversation I had with the legendary Art Mortell, author of The Courage to Fail.

If you like this post, sign up for the free Sales Source newsletter.

Geoffrey James writes the “Sales Source” column on, the world’s most-visited sales-oriented blog. His newly published book is Business to Business Selling: Power Words and Strategies From the World’s Top Sales Experts@Sales_Source

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