Let’s talk about leadership

Last year, in 2021, Anne Dumitrache and I started a podcast. We co-hosted seven episodes, talking about hybrid work, how to get the best out of meetings, the importance of fluid communication, mental health, performance evaluation and other topics. Given the positive feedback we received from people, and after a good end of year retrospective, we decided to continue in 2022 with new and hopefully exciting topics. Also, record the podcast in English, as the initial podcast was in Romanian, our native language, limiting our target audience.

Episode 01 — About Leadership is live, and you can find it here https://open.spotify.com/show/07TwhmD35anYTYanBLDRMq

As a bonus, we have decided to publish an article with notes from the episode.

Leadership is easy, right?

Today’s topic is very common, and I would say “almost” too talked about topic — LEADERSHIP. We chose it because, besides being a massive topic of interest these days, it’s also what started our initial fireside chats as we both share the same vision about it.

When we talk about leadership, the first question that pops into our mind is “What is leadership?” It turns out that, like all the ordinary and simple words, leadership is tough to define. So we decided to start with what we consider the most common myths about leadership.

5 most common leadership myths

Myth 1: I can’t change things if I am not in charge

How many times have you thought about that? I know I’ve thought about it quite often in the early days. What I discovered is that leadership is not about the title. Just because you are a Team Leader and have the keyword leader in the title, it doesn’t mean you are a leader; it doesn’t mean that people will follow or that you can achieve great things. That’s because leadership is made up of qualities and abilities; leadership is a mindset. Sometimes, if you assume the leaders’ title too early, you might get something different than you expected. I remember my first time being in a team lead role when I thought that people would naturally follow because the company I was working for gave me the title. What happened was quite the contrary, and I learned a valuable lesson about building relationships and spending time understanding people before making assumptions and making commitments.

Myth 2: I am not sure of all the answers, so I can’t lead others

We’re humans, and we have a human brain. It’s OK not to have all the answers. It’s not humanly possible to have all the answers when we’re working with such complex and diverse individuals, technologies, and business domains. I learned that to be a successful leader, you need to have self-awareness and understand your limitations. By doing that, you will recognise that teamwork and collaboration are more critical to the success of your team and organisation. There’s always room to grow, develop and learn new things. Who knows? Maybe listen to a podcast as well?

Myth 3: People will not follow me because I do not have charisma

We often tend to think that people will not follow us because of the lack of charisma, but is it true? Charismatic leaders tend to get more spotlight than others, but just because we are not all Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, it does not mean we are not leaders. You could easily think about Angela Merkel or Jeff Bezos. Are they charismatic — NO. Are they leaders in their specific fields — without any doubt, YES! Moreover, did you notice how charismatic anyone looks when they passionately talk about a favourite topic? So just worry about being passionate about the topic, and charisma will follow.

Myth 4: I am not an extrovert, so I can’t lead

This originates in a bias that has plagued promotions and hires for years. People tended to consider that leaders who have shown some extrovert traits like being outgoing, showing great confidence and being comfortable in public make better leaders. Luckily, we have seen this trend reversed in the last couple of years, with some introverted traits like active listening empowering others highlighted as quintessential for modern-day leaders. Today, 40% of the CEOs leading large companies consider themselves introverts. The best examples are Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates — all introverts who are or were leading top tech companies. Also, for introverts, I would recommend the book from Susan Cain, “Quiet — The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”. Leadership ability does not and should not depend upon introversion or extroversion; it is more about being self-aware and able to self regulate your strengths and weaknesses.

Myth 5: Leaders are born, not made

One of the most powerful myths, one strongly responsible for the imposter syndrome that, unfortunately, many managers and leaders are experiencing. Yes, maybe some innate qualities can help a person lead, like, for example, the level of emotional intelligence each of us is born with. However, as it is in sport, it is not as much about talent as it is about the hard work that we do each day. And Simon Sinek has a beautiful 5 min video about this in which it compares the way leadership grows in us with the way the love for a person grows in us, little by little, with everyday choice. Those choices are the ones that define us as leaders. Making again a parallel with sport, the best examples that come into my mind are Usain Bolt and Kobe Bryant. They become renowned athletes and players, not by their innate qualities — Usain was told that he is not fit to be an athlete and Kobe was the 13th pick in his initial draft, but due to their hard work. Moreover, according to the latest studies, leadership is 30% genetic and 70% learned, so we could confidently say that “leaders are made, not born”.

What does leadership mean?

As per Wikipedia, “Leadership (…) encompasses the ability of an individual, group or organisation to “lead”, influence or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organisations”. If the definition seems fluffy, vague or high-level, that’s fine. Wikipedia also mentions the fact that the definition is somewhat debatable or contested.

Leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less

- John C Maxwell

This statement covers a big part of what leadership is: influence. To influence people towards a positive impact, you need to understand what motivates them and what sources influence their behaviour. The book “Influencer” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny & a few others describes best what the sources of influence are — they talk about personal, social and structural sources of influence and split them in two, depending on if they relate to motivation or ability. But even with all of this, having just influence is not enough. As a manager, I can fire team members, considering HR policy, of course. This should provide me with a lot of influence — am I a leader based on this sole thing? I don’t think so.

The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers

- Peter Drucker

This definition also covers a big part of what leadership is: followers or someone to lead. We can’t be leaders working alone, in isolation. But same as the previous definition, it’s not sufficient. Let’s look at the head of state role in a democratic country. The majority party usually elects the head of state. By default, they have followers. Some people have supported their election into this role. But do they always have leadership qualities? Remember Donald Trump? Would you call him a true leader?

You must be the change you want to see in the world

- Mahatma Gandhi

I think this definition covers the heart, the engine of leadership. Leadership doesn’t mean waiting for the change to happen miraculously; it means taking the steps towards it. We all complain about how poorly organised meetings are and how much time they eat, no? But how many times have we sent out a meeting with a proper agenda and followed it with meeting minutes? However, like the previous two, it is not complete. I can start exercising because I want to see people more fit around me, but would that impact the lives of others?

The reason for which we chose these three definitions is that we think that combined, they nail the essence of leadership. Leadership is about influencing other people to achieve a common positive goal. It does not say anything about being put in charge or having all the answers. It does not presume you have or do not have charisma or that you are an extrovert or introvert, and indeed it does not assume that you were born to do it.

Everyone can be a leader if you are intentful about it and learn, get better at what you’re doing.

Recommendations

Book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain https://www.waterstones.com/book/quiet/susan-cain/9780141029191

YouTube video Leadership explained in 5 minutes by Simon Sinek https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZTyvbmW92M

Book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler https://www.waterstones.com/book/influencer-the-new-science-of-leading-change-second-edition-paperback/joseph-grenny/kerry-patterson/9780071808866

Co-author

Anne Dumitrache

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