Leaders find themselves at the top for all sorts of reasons. And once they get there, it can be a wild and bumpy ride. There’s no specific CEO school or program people can attend to learn to be a top leader. There’s just too much to know, and a lot of it is counterintuitive.
Generally, we promote people to be leaders of teams, departments, or organizations because they’re extraordinarily good at something an organization cares about. This might be sales and marketing, product development, classroom teaching, or supporting clients. In a start-up, the person who comes up with a great idea for a new product or service automatically slots into the role of CEO. In nonprofit organizations, we promote our best teachers to be principals and our best social workers to be executive directors.
When we do this, we put remarkably talented, high-achieving people into roles that are entirely new to them. We pull them away from the very thing in which they’ve excelled, and we ask them to do something totally different than anything they’ve done before. It’s like asking the quarterback of the state championship football team to coach women’s soccer.
And there begins the paradox of leadership.
Many CEOs struggle as they embrace their new role because what they believe makes a great leader is actually 180 degrees from what the best leaders do. Myths about leadership keep them from doing their best work—and these myths can throw off even the most established CEOs. Let’s take a look at the top three leadership myths out there, and bust them while we’re at it.
Myth #1: Leaders should have the answers.
As a society, we expect our leaders to have the answers. But, as a leader, believing you have the answers—and never saying “I don’t know”—means you’re pretending that it’s possible for you to know everything there is to know about your people, your products, your company, and your industry. That not only undermines the knowledge and experience of those around you who really do know, it also sets you up to spend time worrying about the humiliation you’ll experience when they find out you really don’t know.
When leaders are doing their jobs well, they’re exploring the territory beyond what’s currently known. They’re out in front of their team, company, or organization. They’re out at the edges where they can’t know. And what’s most helpful at these edges? Three simple words: “I don’t know.” Does that surprise you?
When you’re leading others past what they’ve known and into unchartered waters, saying “I don’t know” is sometimes the best and most efficient thing you can do. It acknowledges that you’re in unknown territory and that not knowing is perfectly okay. Saying “I don’t know”—especially when you’re the CEO—generously gives others the opportunity to share what they know. It gets to the answers more efficiently or spurs a quest to find them, and it demonstrates your humility and belief in your team.
Myth #2: Clear messages will lead to buy-in.
Did you ever play the telephone game? One person whispers something to a second person and the second person whispers the message to a third person, and this goes on and on until the whispered message gets back to the person who started it. We play this game in my family, and I’ve never witnessed the same message coming back to the person who started it. One of my favorites was when the first person started with the phrase “blueberry pancakes” and, after nine people had whispered around the table, we ended up with “pineapple tables.” What?!
We live under the illusion that we control information. We believe that if we say exactly the right words, people will understand what we mean and they will be committed to it. In our work lives, we painstakingly craft corporate messages because we make the assumption that this will engage our people.
The fact is: we don’t control information.
Imagine how the game of telephone plays out when you have a company of 300 people, or 800 people, or 8,000 people! Even when you say the words out loud instead of whispering them in the next person’s ear, even when you repeat them multiple times and put it in print, you’ll still end up with “pineapple tables.”
Rather than spending boatloads of time looking for the right words, spend time looking for words you can deliver authentically and then expect that people will interpret this information based on their own experiences and personal stories. Focus on giving people information that’s meaningful and useful. Trust that your people will make sense of the information you provide; after all, they know their jobs, don’t they? And then provide time and space for people to interpret and make sense of what you’ve given them.
Myth #3: It’s impossible to find time to lead.
Let’s face it. We’re all hooked on being busy. As a leader, you’re supposed to be incredibly busy, right? It’s an expectation. All of that busyness can make it feel impossible to “do the leadership things” you feel like you should be doing.
But what if every time you walked into a room, every time you interacted with someone, every time you sent an email or had a conversation, you were leading?
What if leadership isn’t something you do? What if leadership is someone you are?
We never say, “You do leadership really well.” We say, “You’re a great leader.” This means it’s not about making time to lead, it’s about choosing how you want to show up in every interaction, in everything you do, so that the leadership you’re providing is what you want it to be. It’s not something separate that you have to make time to do.
It’s easy to find time to lead. Don’t pretend you have all the answers or spend your time trying to find the perfect words. Just show up and be a leader for your people.
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