6 Lies About Leadership We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves, According to HR Leaders

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Kelly Poulson
May 25, 2024 at 11:23AM UTC

Let’s think about the word leadership. What does it even mean? I’m willing to bet there are a ton of varied definitions and interpretations out there that prevent people from considering it as an option for them. 

Like a lot of things, we create stories around what it means to be a leader and how to do so effectively. But stories are just that. They aren’t always rooted in reality and can limit what we consider possible for ourselves, our teams and our futures. Enough is enough. Let’s hear from HR pros on the lies we need to stop telling ourselves about leadership ASAP. 

1. Leaders know what they're doing.

That’s not always the case, friends. Bethany Perkins, People Growth Manager at O3 World, shares: “Most leaders got to where they are because they were good at something else. But employees tend to think of leaders as the gold standard for how to be. We need to give leaders room to also be humans. Leaders have bad days. Leaders get stressed. Leaders have to leave work early because their kid has a fever and daycare called. Leaders can't wait for the weekend, just like you. Try to view your leaders as humans who are trying to be good at a job they may not have asked for and cut them some slack.” 

If this is a school of thought you’ve held personally, realize that you’re not required to know all or be all if you’re contemplating a life as a leader. It’s a learning process for most of us.  

2. Leaders aren’t to be questioned. 

Nancy Adams, Chief People Officer at Centrak, says: “This one is my FAVORITE misconception! Team, please tell me if I am about to ride off of a cliff. You see the cliff, I don’t. I’d really like you to speak up at this time.  I don’t want to die.” 

"What the leader says, goes" is a misconception that is prevalent in so many workplaces. The thought that you can’t share ideas if they are different from what leadership proposes is a recipe for homogeneity if I’ve ever heard one! Smart leaders want to hear from their teams in order to prevent missteps. Speak up and share your perspective. You never know how much it will be appreciated. Now, it is also up to the leader to create an environment where you feel safe to speak up and share thoughts. No one will do so if there are negative ramifications or they’re constantly ignored. Relationships work both ways. If they are creating the safe space, be brave enough to share your thoughts.  

3. Title equals leadership.

Perkins states: “While some leadership responsibilities come with the title, not all managers are effective leaders.  And there are plenty of examples of non-managers exhibiting leadership.  So, don't wait for that title change, start acting like a leader today.” 

Title alone does not make a leader, folks. Adams shares: “I’ve been in many meetings where the true leader in the room is not the CEO sitting at the head of the table, but simply an individual further down in the organization’s hierarchy who the team respects and guides them through the many challenges the team may face.” 

If you’re sitting back waiting for someone else to take the lead because you don’t feel empowered to do so, you need to move past that. Do what you feel is necessary for success. And for what it’s worth, it’s not uncommon that exhibiting leadership behaviors lands you the title you seek anyway. 

4. Leaders are excellent communicators. 

Communicating effectively is an art form and one that takes most of us years to master. Adams shares: “Communication is a real skill that must be learned, honed, and personalized to the type of team, method of communication and type of communication. There is so much to consider, including how it will impact the audience hearing it, anticipating questions, having a well thought out plan to address concerns. Leaders can really suck at this and it can break trust and derail work relationships.” 

Along with learning how to share and process information, according to Lynette Philips, President of SEKond to None HR, “Leaders need to be great at not taking things personally.” Being on the receiving end of communication can at times be as complicated as being the deliverer. Leaders need feedback just as much as the rest of us. 

Perkins states:“Yes, your leadership has access to a lot of information that most regular employees do not.  But there's a ton they don't know about what's going on inside the organization.  Leaders often aren't invited out to casual happy hours, which is where a lot of the tea gets spilled. But leadership is so focused on the 10,000 foot view that they aren't aware of what's going on on the ground.” 

As much as they need to communicate to you, it goes both ways.  If you’re hoping to one day lead a team, focus on building your communication skills. Heck, even if you’re not hoping to lead a team, focus on building your communication skills. There are very few roles where being able to effectively communicate isn’t important. 

5. Leaders are fair and reliable evaluators of performance. 

Arend Boersema, Sr. Manager HR Business Partner at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, shares: “There is always a level of bias involved and regardless of how well you define your evaluation criteria, everyone interprets it in their own way and looks at others performance through their lens. So, as a leader, you can't really rate someone as ‘poor at change management,' but you can confidently share YOUR observations of how someone manages a team through change, as long as you explain these are your observations.” 

Leaders have their own experiences, preferences and expectations that impact their view of your contributions. Being aware of that and how it may impact your conversations with your team can be incredibly helpful and set you up for success in any situation where you’re delivering feedback. 

6. The teams’ success or failure depends on the leader. 

Adams says: “Good leadership matters, but the teams’ success or failure depends on the team itself. The leader is a guide and organizer and developer, as well as a person to help pull the right strengths for individuals at the right time to accomplish the goals.”  

According to Boersema, being a successful leader all “depends on who you are as an individual and how you leverage your unique talents. And it depends on the setting you're in when you lead. Different teams and cultures will gravitate to different leadership styles.” 

There is no one size fits all. If you’ve been comparing yourself to other leaders within the organization and thinking you’re too different from them to thrive, guess again. It could be your unique differences are just what the team needs to get to the next level. 

Leadership isn’t a simple concept. It’s not a title or a perk. It’s a way of life. I believe Brene Brown says it best when she defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.” Do yourself a favor and stop believing everything you hear about what it is to be a leader. Go out and define it for yourself! 

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Kelly is a human resources pro and coach who helps leaders find and achieve what they want career-wise and beyond. Coaching, training, recruiting – if you name it in the world of HR, she's done it in a variety of industries. Her advice has been featured on The Muse, Career Contessa, Workology, among others. Learn more by scoping her out at www.kellypoulson.com.

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