How many articles have you read promoting the idea that there is an archetype or avatar for the “great” leader? There are numerous articles — What are the Characteristics of a “Great” Leader?, Top 10 Qualities of a “Great” Leader, and How to Become a “Great” Leader — just a few of the titles that immediately come up when you do a search. But “great” is a subjective term, not a descriptive term which renders it meaningless unless it is broken down into meaningful competencies relevant in the context of the organization. Many leaders try to adopt the behaviors the articles promote without taking into account the needs of employees or the environment they work in.

I still recall the frustration of a CEO of a Bibliotechnical Company because she wanted employees to be more engaged and innovative. She believed that for her to be a “great” leader, she had to engage her employees, allow them to come up with innovative ideas, and share decision-making with them. Predictably, they resisted her every step of the way because most had been with the company more than 15 years, were experienced librarians or library technicians who only wanted to do their job and go home, and really didn’t understand why the CEO was so fired up about collaboration and joint ownership. Unfortunately, her striving to be what she thought to be a “great” leader was out of step with her people and the organization. She ultimately lost her job because the power struggle she created was getting in the way of fulfilling the business goals.

Many leaders achieve business success in a functional leadership role and try to apply the same skills when they have to focus on the people side of leadership. Because they have concluded they are a “great” leader, they don’t believe they need to develop people leadership skills. They also conclude that because they are a “great” leader, if an employee is failing to meet performance expectations or they do something wrong, it’s their fault. They don’t consider that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to engaging, leading, and developing people.

Whether it’s one or several senior leaders who believe they are “great” leaders, it leads to a systemic dysfunction in the organization. The failure to recognize or attend to the experiences and needs of employees splits the organization into those who support the leader’s notion they are “great”, and those who don’t. These same leaders who believe they are “great” because they are following the “10 characteristics of a ‘great’ leader” will dismiss issues an employee raises, spend time talking at them, and congratulate themselves for being open to employees and spending time teaching them the right way. They have little insight into the impact they have on employees who walk away from the conversation feeling overpowered, misunderstood, and devalued.

Promoting the Image of the “Great” Leader: I think therefore I am.

An example of a leader who believes they are “great” and expects everyone to believe it because he says so is Donald Trump. Think about how often he tells people how “great” he is and what a benevolent, caring leader he is to his people. He believes it and promotes it and expects everyone around him to reflect that back to him. However, few would think of him as an inspirational, conscious, authentic leader. He is fast to become rageful and vengeful should anyone present actual facts contrary to what he believes or challenges his ideas.

And he is not alone in the inflated idea of being a “great” leader or having leadership competence. In a 2016 McKinsey & Company study of more than 52,000 managers and employees, leaders rated themselves as better and more engaging than their employees did. 86% of them believed they modeled the improvements they want employees to make, while 77% reported they “inspire action.”

The result of the survey is contrary to what employees say they experience. A 2016 Gallup poll found that only 18% of managers demonstrate a high level of talent for managing employees, Do the math. Yes, this means a shocking 82% of managers aren’t so very good at leading people, but they think they are. 82% of managers and executives are seen as lacking in leadership skills by their employees.

The following are the top myths about the “Great” Leader that must be challenged to develop authentic leadership potency.

Myth #1: “Great” Leaders are Born, Not Developed

There has been a long-standing debate over whether leaders are born or developed. The conclusion drawn by most research is that only one-third comes from natural inborn leadership talents. The other two-thirds come from the development of the person who is leading, which includes both leadership skills and emotional intelligence. Despite this understanding, statistics and organizational behavior support the notion that leaders don’t need training and are born that way. Most organizations don’t have the necessary single line in their budget for developing leaders, nor do they prioritize development over bottom-line results. While there is a genetic trait that may predispose individuals to become leaders, this is pure potential and doesn’t mean these people will be able to perform effectively as a leader without developing themselves. Think for a moment about how many hours it takes in any other industry to achieve mastery of a complex skill. What makes effective leaders is training, coaching, mentoring, practice, and experience despite their starting place.

Myth #2: “Great” Leaders Don’t Need to Change Their Behavior

Leaders who believe they are “great” are in the habit of blaming one of their direct reports for performance issues. They often believe they are the “wrong” person for the role, concluding they need to look for the “right” person. Rather than looking at the issues strategically and systematically, they look for someone to blame. They don’t look at their own leadership behavior to see how they might be contributing to the failure of their employees to perform effectively. Once the CEO or senior leader fingers and then fires their ‘weakest link’ they start the search for the “right guy.” They often go through several cycles of this pattern before they are ready to accept their leadership habits or performance systems are the issues.

Myth #3: “Great” Leaders Don’t Need Help

Many leaders limp along with organizational issues because they believe they are “great” and can figure things out for themselves. They are of the mindset that they shouldn’t have to spend money on the expertise and resources needed to support the business such as an organizational review, engagement surveys, or succession plans. When they do spend money, they have a habit of discounting the results and refuse to listen to the feedback and advice from the consultants.

Myth #4: A “Great” Leader Trusts Employees to Know What to Do

Permissive leadership is on the rise because of the abdication of authority by leaders who believe that to be a “great” leader, you must let employees do work the way they want to. This leads to a failure to define expectations, hold employees accountable, coach, review, and give important corrective feedback. While trying to be a “great” leader, acting like you trust employees who haven’t yet proven their competence or followership diminishes your effectiveness and causes employees to fail. A client of ours revealed that he had no idea what his direct report did with his time, saying he must be doing something because he is on the phone or with someone whenever I see him. He had no sense that it was his responsibility to define and direct his performance.

Myth #5: A “Great” Leader Treats Everyone the Same

Many leaders have the habit of treating employees the same as though all employees have the same maturity, needs, confidence level, and understanding of what is expected. They believe it’s the employee’s job to ask if they need or want something and they are under no obligation to engage their people. For example, after an employee fails to do something correctly because of a lack of information, a leader might say, “If they needed more information, they should have asked.” The belief that they are “great” means they are never at fault and should never have to improve or adapt their leadership style. Without training, leaders don’t realize they need to adapt their style to meet the needs of employees rather than the leader expecting the employee to figure out what’s expected of them. 

Developing Beyond the Image of the “Great” Leader – What To Do?

To increase your actual leadership effectiveness, you must shift from acting as though you are a “great” leader and become conscious of yourself, your behavior, and your emotions. Without self-awareness and accurate self-assessment, you are trapped in an image of yourself having to defend yourself against anything or anyone who challenges this notion. Being objective about what is expected of you in your leadership role, what competencies you are effective at, and those you need to develop allows you to be on the path of fulfilling your leadership potential.

You must also take on the challenge of confronting the way you blame others and look at the impact of your leadership behavior on the performance of your employees. You must stop making excuses and rationalizing your behavior and the behavior of others. Leaders need to become aware of the cost to themselves, employees, and the organization that their behavior is having. Understanding the fears and fixed beliefs that cause you to stall your own development helps you minimize your own defensive behavior. You also need to understand the impact of your behavior on others and how it gets in the way of you achieving your leadership potential.

Authentic leadership starts with the human being doing the leading. If you aspire to be “great”, you will limit your human development. Aspiring to achieve your potential while meeting the needs of employees, peers, stakeholders, and the organization puts you on a path of strengthening your leadership foundation and increasing your potency and effectiveness.


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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