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Leadership myths

Bennis’ Learning to Lead, Leadership Myths – An Exercise asks the following questions for common leadership myths:

(a) Who told you this myth was true?

(b) Who demonstrates this myth? Who lives their lives out of this myth?

(c) Following the description of each myth, write the name of a person who reminds you of the myth.

Leadership is a rare skill that has ubiquitous surroundings. Leadership is standing up when everyone else stays seated. Leadership is inspiring others when you yourself have just had your dreams dashed against the rocks. Leadership is being courageous when one would rather not. Leadership is considering the greater good over the good for oneself. Leadership has integrity, trust, and encouragement as its underpinnings.

Leaders by their leading have proven this myth. Daily we have what we have now coined as everyday heroes leading our communities, our states, our nation, and our world. These people stood up because they knew they could affect needed change while managers managed the status quo. The potential for leaders is many. Those who stand up are few and appreciated.

Leaders are born and made. There are those who are born with advantages and avenues to leadership open to them. However, those people still have to consciously choose to take up the saber and become the leader they were born to be. Many choose not to be a leader but to lead their own lives on another path. Others, like John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Francis Kennedy, were born with advantages and avenues open for them and they took up their callings. Their brother, Edward Kennedy, was born with the same advantages but because of his birth order, he, under normal circumstances, would not have been required to take up the leadership saber. However, upon the deaths of his two brothers, he consciously chose to take up their fallen saber and continue their work in the public service environment.

Just because leaders are born, it does not follow that they are not made. Leaders are made or rather, they make themselves. Being born to advantage makes the development of leader easier, but it is still a development. Opportunities, under the disguise of hard work and challenges, are always available for leadership; however, each person must consciously decide to reach up and take the challenge. He or she must decide to put aside the comfort of complacency to stand up and lead. Moreover, he or she must do this, often, with no clearly defined path. He or she only knows that the group must move from the status quo place where it finds itself, and he or she hopes that the direction in which he or she is leading the group is a forward direction. “But [their] nature wouldn’t let [them] stay satisfied with crawling and [they] ignored [their] fears and the results [they] had produced and stood up again….Fear: Forget everything and run.” (Dyer. 1998, p. 155)

There are competent managers that are and are not charismatic. However, a true leader is charismatic. Just as there are different types of leaders, there are different types of charisma. There is the quiet charisma, the political charisma, the older therefore wiser charisma, and the youthful therefore energetic charisma. For leaders to lead effectively, they must inspire. For leaders to inspire effectively there must be a spark. The spark is charisma.

Charismatic leaders in my life have been politicians, ministers, and colleagues with more bench time. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though he died when I was only 4, was a huge charismatic leader in my life. Learning about U S President Kennedy, ignited my passion for public service. His brother, Robert Francis Kennedy, ignited my passion for standing up for those with no voice. His words, this is unacceptable, whether he was talking about racial injustices, slum living at Bedford Sty, below poverty living in Appalachia, or the slave-like existence of the immigrant farm workers in California, reminded everyone that we are all one race.

Martin Luther King, Jr., ignited my passion for the future. The future he discussed in his I Have a Dream speech and other less famous speeches were my dreams for the future too. Though I was raised in the South, I was raised in an integrated city. Many of the injustices Dr. King discussed were foreign to my daily life experiences. He reminded us all that these injustices should be foreign to everyone’s daily life experiences.

Leadership is found in all levels of an organization, a community, a group. There are several where I work who refuse management positions but who quietly lead divisions, teams, and groups daily. They raise the bar (or keep it at a high level) by their ethical behavior, their pursuit of equal justice for all, and their quest for continuing excellence in their field. “Who were the leaders of the Renaissance? The leaders were the artists, writers, and musicians who listened to their hearts and souls and expressed who they heard leading other to discover a resonating voice within themselves.” (Dyer, 1998).

Leaders control, direct, prod, and manipulate others. There are those who perform these tasks well, and managers who do not perform these tasks well. It is my belief that these workers can be manipulated, directed, prodded, and controlled positively. These beliefs are strengthened by the following quotes.

  • Kennedy (1964) wrote, “As Andrew Jackson said, ‘One man with courage makes a majority.”
  • Searing (1995) wrote, “If you do not walk in with your own idea of what you want to get out of the meeting, you may get lost in the shuffle. Taking a leadership role includes taking an active role in meetings. Leadership means planning what you want – a decision or course of action – with specific ideas about which decision or course you want to achieve. Leadership may include working with a group to convince them to take your course of action.”
  • Buckingham (1999) wrote, “Focus on each person’s strengths and manage around his weaknesses. Don’t try to fix the weaknesses. Don’t try to perfect each person. Instead do everything you can to help each person cultivate his talents. Help each person become more of who he already is.”
  • Donnelly (1996) wrote, “They are right there, visible to their subordinates and customers. Don Shula, Rick Pitino, Earl Weaver, Joe B. Hall, and Billy Martin were ‘managing by walking around’ long before Peters and Waterman wrote about it, before Sam Walton began visiting his Wal-Mart stores, and before Stew Leonard mingled with the customers of his dairy store.”
  • Donnelly (1996) wrote, “Leadership requires the conceptual skills to formulate a vision, create goals, build an organizational structure, and create a shared sense of purpose and an environment where people want to do their best work…The purpose of leadership is to formulate strategy and change, rather than implement them.”
  • Boa (1999) wrote of the parable of the beautiful girl and the frog, “One day a beautiful girl kissed a frog…The lime green frog was transformed into a handsome, young prince. The prince was liberated to be all that he could be. What that girl did for the frog, leaders do for their followers. Leaders are in a unique position to help their followers to develop their own leadership skills and to reach their full potential.”

How do the leadership myths in your life influence your behavior and your self-assessment? How do your position, role, and responsibilities in the organization shape myths about leadership?


Bennis, W. (1997). Learning to Lead. (Updated Edition) Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books

Boa, K., Buzzell,S & Perkins, B. (1999). God’s Words of Life for Leaders. 91st Ed.) Memphis, TN: Zondervan Gift

Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999), First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. (1st Ed.) New York: Simon Y Schuster, Inc.

Donnelly Jr., J. (1996). 25 Management Lessons From the Customer’s Side of the Counter. (1st Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill

Dyer, W. (1998). Wisdom of the Ages: A Modern Master Brings Enternal Truths Into Everyday Life. (1st Ed.) New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Kennedy, J. (1964). Profiles in Courage, Commemorative Edition. (Memorial Ed.) New York: Harper & Rowe Publishers, Inc.

Searing, J. & Lovett A. (1995). The Career Prescription: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Career and Put It On a Winning Track. (1st Ed.) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall


For a list of Sheila’s books, check out


Dr. Sheila Embry is a govie, author, pracademician, sister, aunt, cousin, and friend who loves to read, write, think, and laugh. Many of her blog postings are summaries or excerpts of books that she read and wants to share to encourage others. An author with more than 25 years experience within the legislative and executive branches of the U. S. federal government holding 3 accredited degrees: Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, Master of Arts in Human Resources Development, and Baccalaureate of Business Administration, she believes in continuing learning both on and off the job. She has been recognized with multiple professional and writing awards for her peer-reviewed, publications. Click the bibliography page above for a listing of all the publications.

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