Busting Some Leadership Myths

LeadershipThere’s no doubt about it – leadership is a hot topic, and has been now for quite some time.  Every day I see articles about “leaders do this” and “the common characteristics that leaders have” from a variety of sources.  We love reading about leaders in our fields or just the famous people that we like peeking at as they go about their business.

However, in the feeding frenzy of media comment, leadership has become a topic about which you can write a fantastic piece of fluff, and everyone will sing “amen” provided you have some inspirational quote at the end.

I’m not going to do that.

There’s a lot of misinformation about leadership which, quite frankly, annoys me.  For that reason I’m going to start by setting out 3 pointers about what leadership is NOT.  I’m going to finish with what leaders ARE.

Leaders Are Not Copycats

There is this school of thought which suggests that if you identify a characteristic that certain leaders have, then copy that, then you too can be a leader.  It’s rubbish, of course, but popular nonetheless.  Mostly it’s popular because people love identifying with supremely successful figures like Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson, Marissa Meyer and Chris Hargreaves (that last one’s a joke, in case your radar’s not working).  They see those figures, try and pick apart “what they did” to get to their position and then think they can do the same.

It’s nonsense.  Although it is true that some leaders seem to share certain personality traits, but you know what? Most of them did not get to where they are by trying desperately to copy somebody else’s behaviour, characteristics or personality.

Not Everyone Gets a Prize

Sorry to deflate you, but not everybody IS a leader, and not everybody SHOULD be a leader.  Some people are simply not made for leadership.  No matter what they do, what they say, who they copy, how much they learn or how technically effective they are, they will never be a good leader.

The assumption that we can all be leaders will enough knowledge, effort, reading, writing, years experience or whatever is simply wrong.  Some people are not made for it.  Unfortunately the perception that everyone CAN do it results in a lot of people being put into leadership positions where they simply don’t belong.  This is bad for them, and bad for the organisation.

And  I have no problem with that.  Leadership is a gift, not a Bachelor’s degree.  Sure, there are strategies and techniques that you can learn which can assist you in management, and if you’re put in that situation then I encourage you to take those steps and ensure you are improving your skills.  However management is not leadership (more on that below).

Some people come into their leadership gift later in life, and some earlier.  So the fact that you are not a leader now doesn’t mean you will never be.  However, before deciding that you “want to be a leader” (whatever that means), take a really hard look at yourself, ask somebody you trust (hopefully you have a mentor) and ask them – “am I, at my core, supposed to be a leader”?  The flip side is this: other people might be wrong, and you might be holding yourself back not because you lack leadership skills, but because you haven’t got an accurate view of your own capabilities.

This is particularly important in law where the expectation of you in a law firm will be that you want to progress to partner.  Don’t take that for granted – maybe you should, but maybe you shouldn’t.  Maybe you will find partnership nothing but a source of consistent frustration as you don’t feel like you’re hitting your sweet spot.  Perhaps you are far better to focus on your technical expertise and take a different direction.  Perhaps you do far better working with a leader who can give you the strategy to implement.  Don’t underestimate the value of these skills.  For some reason we seem to think that people who are not “leaders” are inferior, which is a load of rot.  Leaders perform a particular function, just as everybody else at all levels of an organisation do.  Remove the mail room from the firm and the entire place would grind to a halt, just like it would if you removed the receptionist.

I would suggest that the aspiration should not always be to leadership, but to find your sweet spot and do it to the best of your ability.

Leaders are Not Managers

This is a blurry concept I admit, but there is a distinction between leaders and managers.  Both might have people working under them, both might be a “boss”, and both might be responsible for budgets etc.  However there is a difference.

They can be subtle.  A leader establishes, defines and articulates the vision for their team, whereas the manager implements the strategy.  Managers primarily solve problems, whereas leaders should be looking for opportunities.  Managers tell people what to do, leaders inspire people to action.

Really this separation falls into the category of: you know it when you see it.

Let me say though that there is no shame in being a manager, just as there is not in being a clerk or an assistant.  These roles all perform vital functions within an organisation.  Again I say – not everybody can be a leader, nor should everybody try to be.

So What ARE Leaders Then?

It’s been said before, so this isn’t as profound as it might have been a while ago.  However, many people recently seem to gloss over the singular role of leaders:

Leaders are the ones that people follow.

That’s all there is to it.  If nobody willingly follows you, then you’re not a leader.  It doesn’t matter how confident you are, how smart you are, how engaging you are, what tricks and traps and methods you know to drive a company to succeed – if nobody is following you, then you’re not a leader.  If people only follow you because you are their boss – then you’re not a leader.  If people only go your way because you speak so much in meetings that nobody else can get a word in – you’re not a leader.

Organizationally, leaders are the people who cast the vision which inspires the team which drives performance.

There is a wonderful result of this concept however – you can be a leader no matter where you sit in an organisation.  People can follow you no matter your station.  Because leadership in this sense is about influence and relationship, you can develop those things from the moment you walk into an office until the moment you walk out.  Sure the greatest influence will likely come from the top, but not all of it, and not all the time.

That’s my take on leadership.

Disagree?  I look forward to hearing it 🙂

Are you a leader, or aspire to be one?  Why?  What is about you that makes you think you were made to be a leader?  Let me know in the comments.

Happy Lawyering!




  • Great point in mentioning that leadership is a gift and not a degree. Way too many lawyers think they should have a firm and be managing people because a) they have a law degree or b) they’ve been a lawyer for a long time. Each of those has nothing to do with the ability to lead and motivate people.

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