A Myth That Thwarts Leadership

Myth-That-Thwarts-Leadership-Susan-MazzaWhile sitting with a group of teachers as they reflected about their own leadership, it became clear quite a few of them were struggling.

This group was known as the Leadership Team for their school and most had been part of this group for a few years.  Yet when asked to assess themselves as leaders the majority of them were seemingly paralyzed. As we discussed why… an underlying theme emerged.

While they had respect for their principal they did not want to ever be like many of the people in leadership positions they had seen come and go.  Blinded by what they thought being a leader was supposed to look like, they did not even consider the possibility that they could determine the kind of leader they wanted to be.

The notion of leading without a title has gained ground, yet the grip of past interpretations of what it means to be a leader continue to have a tight grip on many organizational cultures, not only in education, but in business and government as well.

It is particularly strong when you have highly technical people who pride themselves on their knowledge and skill in their craft.  Sometimes promotions are granted as a way to reward them financially even though these individuals often have no interest in managing or leading.  Yet if you listen closely you will discover that lack of interest in managing or leading is only part of the story.

Having been an IT professional for many years before becoming a leadership coach and organizational change consultant, I have explored this resistance to becoming a “leader” from both the inside and the outside.

What I have observed is that often people do not want to become a leader because they think they will have to become like someone else.  That someone else is often already “above” them on an organization chart or in a position of power that has impacted them in some way.

There is an unspoken belief for many that if you get to a certain level or position you will have to change who you are.” ~Susan Mazza Tweet this

For some it seems they would have to become like people for whom they do not have very much respect.  What that “certain level or position” may be cannot be defined globally.  It is very personal.

This belief is a myth that continues to thwart the loud call for leadership from every corner of our world. It is a myth that for many is barrier between the concept of leading without a title and embracing that they can and often are already leaders as a reality regardless of their position or role in life.  It is also a myth that keeps people from embracing the call to lead in their current role or position.

Being the most effective leader you can be requires that you become the most powerful expression of yourself rather than attempt to emulate someone else.

A leader is someone who takes action to make a difference where they work or live in service of a commitment to something that contributes to others.  In the framework of Random Acts of Leadership™ that means speaking up, stepping up or standing up in service of your commitments.

It is only when we start to consider leadership at the level of action that we can begin to observe the simple yet potent acts of leadership that are committed everyday by people at all levels in organizations and all roles in life.

Just look around you and you will see examples every day leaders – people who are speaking up, stepping up and standing up for something that matters to them and makes a difference for others.

The skills of leadership can be cultivated by anyone.  However, to cultivate them you must be willing to act; and to cultivate them in others you must be able to recognize leadership in action.

What other myths do you believe are thwarting leadership from flourishing where you work and live?

About Susan Mazza

A catalyst for conversations that matter, relationships that work and results that inspire, Susan serves leaders and their organizations as a Leadership Coach, Change Agent and Motivational Speaker.

Named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America in 2013, she is known for her ability to bring clarity to complex issues and transform theory and ideas into action and results. With a passion for unleashing the human spirit at work Susan has cultivated leadership and accountability in organizations around the world. As a master facilitator she also has extensive experience transforming dysfunctional groups into collaborative teams.

Co-author of The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a Revolution of Leadership One Person at a Time, Susan is also an award winning blogger at RandomActsofLeadership.com.


  1. Hi Susan ~ this is a great post that emphasises a long-held view of mine that any organisation focusing just on the apex leader is demonstrating a complete dearth of leadership understanding! Leaders exist at all levels of organisations, some more obviously than others, but they are there … and should be nurtured and developed!

    What defines the likelihood of this happening is the level of trust within those internal relationships, which is another facet highlighted within this post that I fully support!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Kind regards


  2. “A leader is measured by the amount of followert that themselves want to become a leader” – I heard this one once. And I found it very interesting. It is also fun to see people unaware of being a leader, actually leading – I often see this both at work and off. Another thing I do advice people to do is, to act as a leader before they are promoted.

    Good post Susan.

    • Love the quote Frode – there is much truth in it. One of a leaders primary roles is to support others in discovering their own greatness – once they do that they can’t help but be a leader whether they recognize themselves as one or not.

  3. I am a new executive director of a non profit. I’ve been in this post for one year, after being a volunteer for 12 years. Thank you for this excellent resource. I agree with Hampton’s view above. One of the biggest challenges is learning how to lead leaders. I think the biggest myth of all is that Servant Leadership is a weak form of leadership.

    • A great add to the list of myths Bill – that servant leadership is weak. It actually takes great courage to let go of the illusion of control for the sake of truly being of service to another and to perhaps even risk that those leaders you serve will be better than you.

  4. Great points you raise that often highly technical people are promoted to leadership positions when they have no interest in managing or leading or have had no role model to emulate. Leadership as you suggest can come from ay level and with or without title and comes from more of the intention that a plaque above ones door.

    • You make an important point Heidi that the resistance to leadership is not just about having no interest, but also about having limited role models. The disdain for leadership is often part of the cultural conversation reinforced by those with the technical prowess that is revered and respected. It can create a bit of a vicious cycle keeping could be leaders from stepping up and becoming those role models.

  5. Nicely said Susan,

    The challenge of course is that many people within organizations are comfortable within their own realm (of which they do lead), but find it difficult to recognize their impact on their environment (leadership influence) simply by showing up to work each day. Everyone of us whether we know it or not lead i.e. influence, set the pace, define how people respond simply by how we think, our personalities, behaviours, and who we are (as you so well described). We don’t actually have to “do” much at all.


  6. Susan, I enjoyed your article. I am one of those individuals who was afraid to step up into a position of leadership. There were a few things blocking me from taking on the title but the biggest myth was that I had nothing to offer.My self-image was not am accurate perspective of how influential I am to my co-workers and peers. Once I believed that I could handle the responsibility I was willing to accept the position but I needed support from other leaders who also believed in me.

    To echo off of a some more of the previous comments, I also believe that some people are mistaking leadership style and the need to be adapt it to perople and situaions with changing who you are as a person in order to be a leader. If a title change is the cause of a change in who you are as a person than you might want to do some soul searching as you learn more about your new position.

    • Thanks Aaron for sharing about your personal journey to claim your leadership. The belief that we are not good enough definitely clouds our ability to see the reality of our influence on others. Since we can only see what we believe it is important to have people around us like you did whose belief in us is enough to elevate our own belief in ourselves. Somehow I have no doubt you are one of those leaders who continue to pay it forward!

      Also, excellent point that if you think a title change is the cause of a change in who you are it’s time to do some soul searching.

  7. Another Myth is that some people think that only a few individuals are born into the ‘sacred’ position of leadership.

    Thank you, Susan Mazza for this post. It has something in common with my piece. Thumbs up!

    • The myth that only a few are “born into the “sacred” position of leadership” does seem to hold on tightly despite how hard we work to dispel it.

      Thanks Ogwo! Look forward to reading your article.

  8. Another myth is that they have nothing to offer. These leaders feel their knowledge isn’t valuable or it’s common knowledge, even if it’s not. They, therefore, sit back and let others lead.

    • Great add Joseph! Believing we have nothing to offer is great example of a another myth thwarting leadership. It is perhaps one of the most potent limiting beliefs in life and leadership. Our awareness of this myth can also provide us with access to encouraging and cultivating leadership in others.

  9. Hi Susan. I appreciate your post acknowledging that there are leaders at all levels … and that leadership comes from actions – not title. I often work on crystallizing my definition of leadership. Someone who is willing to “speak up, stand up, and step up” … those three actions certainly do epitomize leadership prowess.

    Also – an interesting take on self assessment of leadership capabilities. As a self-proclaimed “assessment junkie”, I am always amazed when others are hesitant to learn more about themselves. You have now given me a fresh perspective. Thank you for your great post.

    • Thanks Susan. I am not sure I will ever be done crystallizing my definition of leadership – seems to be a lifelong journey! This is the simplest way I have come up with “defining” it so far. Would love to hear how you are defining leadership at this moment in time.

      Now I know where to go when I am looking for an assessment tool! Are there any assessments you have found particularly valuable in supporting people in developing their leadership?

      • Susan – How true about the lifelong journey to define leadership. And maybe that is how it should be? In all the words I like to use, self-aware is always first. That is probably why I am an assessment junkie. Two of my favorites are the Simmons Personal Survey to assess emotional intelligence behaviors and the Hogan LEAD series to assess leadership potential, derailers, and drivers. These are my initial go-to tools. I would love to hear what you and others use. Thanks!

        • My favorite tool is the NetTPS Values Survey. It is an ipsative vs. normative tool which makes it particularly compelling to me as many tools can inadvertently put people into “boxes”. Another one I really like is the Kolbe Index.

  10. Susan,
    Your post rings true. Leadership is not a set of behaviors that one must do. It is not ONE identity you must become.

    To deliver your leadership talent to others, one must become very self-aware and deliver that totally unique blend of talents for the good of the org/group/team.

    Perhaps traditional leadership training help create the myth that you must become someone else — which of course is impossible.

    The teachers you were working with have the benefit of your evolved view and will emerge with their talents developed.

    Great work — great post.

    • Love how you said this Kate: “Leadership is not a set of behaviors that one must do. It is not ONE identity you must become.”

      Your point about how traditional leadership training may have helped to create the myth got me thinking. Perhaps so many adjectives are used in front of the word leadership these days, e.g. authentic leadership, heart centered leadership, servant leadership, etc. in attempt to dispel myths like this one. These descriptors could be a kind of antidote to the belief systems of old that we might need until we fully embrace a new context for leading.

      Thanks for your kind words and for always provoking my thinking!

  11. Great article Susan. And your example of that Leadership Team at School is so recognizable also here in Belgium. It confirms my belief that people are people wherever they live… . You are right. Everyone is somehow a leader for someone and it is up to the individual to choose which kind of a leader he/she will be. In this regard I like very much the inspirational movie http://www.wttmovies.com/leadershiplessonsmovie/

    Kind regrads,


    • It’s very interesting to hear that this phenomena is at play in Belgium, too. Like you said though – “people are people”!

      The movie is beautiful Joan – a wonderful call for people to see the leader in themselves. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Think I will share it with those teachers!

  12. Hi Susan,

    Great article! It’s so true that many people refuse leadership opportunities because they think they have to be someone other than who they are. Like everything else, leadership is a matter of choices. Aware leaders are consciously making choices to their leadership styles, skills, values and competencies.

    I particularly agree with this statement: “Being the most effective leader you can be requires that you become the most powerful expression of yourself rather than attempt to emulate someone else.”

    All the best,

    • Thank you Susan. This is such an important point you make: “Like everything else, leadership is a matter of choices. Aware leaders are consciously making choices…” That’s why I think it is so important to consider leadership at the level of action: it is in those moment to moment opportunities that any one of us can choose to be a leader regardless of whether we are “the” leader.

  13. Susan, I can understand why those teachers felt as they did. They worked in an environment that defined the leader, rather than allowing the leader to define themselves. Thanks for your insight.

  14. Hi Susan –

    Inspiring words for all who have misunderstandings of what leadership can be. As leaders, we need to be ever diligent in our support of the development of other leaders, especially those who fall victim to this myth. Thanks.

    • Thank you Hampton. Great point that we must be diligent as leaders in developing other leaders, especially those who fall victim to this myth. We all need someone to help us to take the blinders off on occasion.

  15. Susan, intriguing. I have been working on a post on a similar topic, and am finding it difficult to write (so many important angles on this one). I will like to this post for sure.

  16. Hi Susan

    Leadership at the level of action – a great call to arms. Great article, thanks for this and your work on Random Acts of Leadership, consistently thought provoking and inspiring.
    Warm wishes



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