Two Myths About Leadership

Did you know that the average age of the people who write for Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal is something like 29 years old?

Don’t get me wrong. I read these publications. And I understand the necessity of hiring young, inexperienced writers. But because I have been on the inside of the business-publishing world, I’m skeptical about what I read in the business press … and especially so about advice that is given.

Such is the case with the advice I read about leadership. For the most part, the ideas seem wrong to me. They don’t correspond to anything I’ve experienced myself, and they don’t equate with practices I’ve seen as a consultant to business owners.

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s the process that’s the problem. I know how secondhand information works. It gets misunderstood, oversimplified, and distorted. And if that’s not bad enough, it also gets cleaned up, edited, prettified. Not, in the latter case, by the writers, but by the experts who are being interviewed. (When asked about the secret to his success, what business leader wouldn’t want to give motivating credit to his troops?)

Good business writers know how to recognize an interesting idea and present it in a clear, convincing manner. That is good – so long as the idea itself is good. But if the idea is wrong … then the good writing only serves to waste your time (or do you harm).

There are a lot of myths about leadership floating around out there. And if you take those myths as truth, you can seriously damage your business. Let’s take a closer look at two of them, find out why they’re wrong … and what techniques the REAL leaders use.

MYTH #1: “Soft” Leadership Skills Work

I once read an article in which a spokesman for Office Team, a business consulting firm, said “If companies want to be successful in the future, they’ll have to adopt soft leadership skills.” By this, he meant that you should be listening to your employees, sharing feelings with them, and keeping an open mind “to all kinds of ideas – even bad ones.”

If you don’t learn these soft skills, the consultancy says, you will be in trouble. Because these softer skills will soon “completely replace the older, harder skills of planning, persuasion, and discipline.” Office Team says: “The future office environment won’t allow for command-and-control focused management style. Employees want to contribute to decisions and offer creative solutions.”

This sort of thinking completely contradicts my own experience. From what I’ve seen, most employees want leadership. And leadership to them means that someone else solves the problems and tells them what to do about them.

As a leader in your business, you are earning big bucks to do the hard thinking, to make the tough decisions, and to get the job done – even if that means pushing the weight uphill. Yes, you should be open to new ideas. Yes, you should talk to the rank-and-file workers. Yes, you should pay attention to your employees. But the big decisions about where to go and what to make and how to solve the company’s problems are ultimately yours.

This requires vision, knowledge, skill, and (most certainly) good ideas. But even more important is an understanding of how to get people to embrace your ideas and work to achieve them … even in the face of criticism and adversity.

So how do you do it? By making the work worthwhile.

For a perfect example, look to some of the great religious leaders of history. From Jesus Christ to Gandhi, these leaders were able to persuade large groups of people to do all kinds of great and difficult work, merely by creating the idea that the work itself was good. (Yes, there may have been some bribing going on there – the promise of heaven, and all that. But I can’t imagine that so many people would have made so many sacrifices without believing that the work itself was worthwhile.)

MYTH #2 “Allowing participation is more important than sharing your vision.”

This myth is another gem gleaned from an article in a prestigious business publication. The premise seems to be that, when it comes to setting goals, leaders should focus on fostering and improving employee participation rather than on creating a plan for better business.

That is just silly. Utterly silly. But it was a serious recommendation offered up in sober language by some earnest young writer quoting from some ex-tough-guy businessperson who wanted to sugarcoat his career.

Back here in the real world … a leader can delegate a great deal of responsibility if he surrounds himself with good people. But the one thing he can never delegate is the job of establishing goals and creating a vision. Unless, that is, he wants to cease being a leader.

Dreaming about what your business can accomplish, thinking about how far it can go and how great it can be, is the most important job you can do. If you are a leader, now or in the future, you must spend much of your spare time doing that.

Yes, you can ask questions. Yes, you can seek advice. But when it comes down to deciding where you want your business to go and what you want it to achieve, you’ve got to do it yourself. Then … you’ve got to share your vision.

It is not easy to inspire work. Those who can have one thing in common: They have a keen ability to create and communicate a compelling vision. This is essential for effective leadership. Most real authorities on leadership recognize this. You can be fairly limited in other intellectual qualities but strong in audacity and the ability to communicate a picture – and still be a successful leader. (Ronald Reagan proved that, didn’t he?)

The same can be said for leaders of social causes. When ordinary citizens work tirelessly to respond to a crisis or natural disaster, they do so not for any of the normal reasons that employees work. They do it because they feel that they are compelled by a vision. They feel engaged in a worthwhile process.

Think about religion today. All those apostles you see at airports. Why do they work like that? Why do they submit themselves to that kind of indignity? It’s not for the money; they get none. And it’s not for public approval; they get the opposite. They shave their heads, put on robes, and spend countless hours begging … because they believe that what they are doing is good. It’s as simple – and as powerful – as that.

To be a great leader, you have to:

Spend time thinking about how you can make things better.

Make people believe in the goodness of your ideas.

If you can do both of these things, your employees will gladly work for you. They will beg for you. They will fight for you. And in extreme cases (not that this is something you’d hope for), they may even die for you.

To become a leader is to become powerful and important. To become a leader is to put yourself in a position of authority and influence. To become a leader is a responsibility and a privilege. It can change your life faster and further than just about anything else you can learn to do. And the way to do that is to create a compelling, worthwhile vision and inspire your employees to follow through with the work itself.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]