CMI MBOTY 2019: Six myths of leadership

14 January 2019 -


We need to banish these assumptions about great leadership, says one CMI Management Book of the Year entry

Guest blogger Jo Owen

There are over 60,000 leadership books available on Amazon, which is precisely why you need one more. With so many books out there touting different theories and ideas, you need a simple guide that will sort fact from fiction and myth from reality when it comes to best practice in management. That is the purpose of my book, Myths of Leadership. Here are six out of the 100s of management myths I found lurking in the undergrowth of gurus and academics.


1. We know what leadership is

Gurus talk about leadership, but don’t define it. That means they literally do not know what they are talking about. If you don’t know what a leader is, how can you become a good one? The only definition I have found which works is this: “Leaders take people where they would not have got by themselves”. That takes us to the next myth.

2. Leadership is about your position

This is nonsense. There are plenty of people with grand titles such as CEO or Prime Minister who are simply reacting to and following others. They are not leading because they are not taking people where they would not have got by themselves. Meanwhile, if you in the middle of the organisation but taking your team where they would never have got by themselves, you are a leader. Leadership is about what you do, not about your title.

3. The perfect leader

If you read the literature, leaders are visionary and detailed, ambitious and humble, task-focused and people-focused, caring and ruthless, controlling and empowering: they are a cornucopia of contradictions.

The more you see of leaders, the more you realise that no leader gets ticks in all the boxes. Every leader is flawed, and those flaws become more obvious the more you move into the spotlight. The best leaders dial up their strengths and dial down their weaknesses. No one succeeded by focusing on their weaknesses. Find the context where your strengths will flourish and your weaknesses matter less.

4.Leadership and management are different

As the author of How to Lead and How to Manage, I can reveal the only statistically proven difference between leadership and management: leadership sells more books than management. That is a disaster because it devalues both leadership and management. It implies that everyone thinks they should be a leader (which is not possible) and that no one wants to be a manager (but management is both vital and very hard work).

5. The leader is the smartest person in the room

This belief is nurtured by leaders who do not trust their teams, find it hard to delegate and work themselves into a stress related breakdown. The job of the leader is not to be the smartest person in the room, but to get the smartest people into the room onto the team. Then you can delegate to them, and you have the idle way to success: let your team deliver success for you.

6. You can teach leadership

At conferences, I ask people how they have learned to lead. Ninety-nine per cent of people say that they have not learned from books or courses. That could be bad news for an author who offers training. In practice we all learn from our own experience and observing those around us. That is great if you have great role models and great experiences. But it is also a random walk that can take you into career dead ends with the wrong bosses, roles models and experiences.

You cannot read a book and become a great leader by page 279. But books will help you make sense of the nonsense you encounter and will help you put structure on your random walk of discovery. A good book will accelerate and direct your journey to leadership, which is what I hope Myths of Leadership will do for you.

More information on other nominations for CMI Management Book of the Year 2019 is available here

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