A version of this article appeared at Inc.comThis article is an adapted excerpt from Les McKeown’s book, Do Lead.
In previous extracts, we first redefined what leadership is, in order to de-mystify it, and took a fresh look at where leadership occurs.
Finally in this first chapter, it’s important for us to get out of the way some of the more dangerous myths about what’s involved in being a leader.
Dangerous? I guess ‘debilitating’ would be a better word. Unless you’re running a major military operation, no one’s life is endangered when leadership is portrayed as something it isn’t, but many people are dissuaded on a daily basis from engaging in acts of leadership because they’ve been sold a notion of what it is to be a leader that’s unrealistic and intimidating.
Leadership isn’t about charisma.
Let’s start with the most glaring of category errors in thinking about leadership – the notion that leaders are charismatic and that leadership is glamorous.
I’ve met (and worked for) many charismatic leaders in my time, some of whom you’d know by name and many you wouldn’t. But for every charismatic leader who has crossed my path, I’ve met and worked with hundreds more who couldn’t possibly be described that way.
Charisma, if you have it, can be a great tool for a leader to wield (it’s equally dangerous if used wrongly, of course) – but it’s not a prerequisite. Nor is it necessary to be a wonderful communicator, or a fantastic motivator or a savant who reads people and understands their motives. All of these qualities are helpful to have, but just as possessing any or all of these characteristics doesn’t automatically make you a leader, so not having them doesn’t preclude you from engaging in acts of leadership.
Leadership isn’t about genius.
Leaders sometimes come up with truly remarkable ideas. When they do, they get written about and lauded (sometimes, rightly so). But leadership isn’t all about brilliant ideas and acts of genius. Sometimes, leadership is the opposite: eschewing the highly creative, knock-it-out-of-the-park blue-sky idea for the mundane; choosing between not very risky alternatives; or, on occasion, simply making a statement of the bleeding obvious.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you have an IQ that upgrades you to platinum status at MENSA, that’s fine, and you will certainly find many opportunities as a leader to exercise it – but genius isn’t the price of entry to leadership. There are very many exceptionally clever people who could never, in a month of Sundays, be thought of as effective leaders – most likely your old college professors included. Similarly, I know many, many people with non-stellar IQs who are consistently superb leaders.
Leadership isn’t about position.
By now it should be obvious that leadership has almost nothing to do with an individual’s position on an org chart. While seniority in an organization may be a lagging indicator that someone has leadership skills, it’s by no means a guarantee of it, and many people who never rise to a position of prominence in an organization consistently act as leaders nonetheless.