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The Risk of Idealizing Leadership

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

What comes to mind when you think of a leader?

The concept of leadership has shifted a lot over time. From the outside, we often see leaders who have or should have, larger-than-life personalities or superheroes who can achieve anything. We confuse, at times, competence with charisma and confidence. With this, we place a series of expectations on leaders.

In real life, leaders are human beings, with strengths and weaknesses. Even after a lifetime of experience, leaders are still people.

Looking from the inside, anyone who has been in a senior leadership role knows that the day-to-day experience in the shoes of a leader is tough. Your reality is governed by discipline, constant change, hard questions and decisions. You also know that there are good days and bad days.

Yet, we like to believe leaders are superhuman. Because it makes us feel protected. It gives us certainty and promotes a sense that everything is under control. It relieves us from the inner tension and anxiety that comes with change.

But having heads in the clouds and feet on the ground is not only individual responsibility, it’s also a team responsibility.

When we look at what the data says, there are some insightful facts to also take into consideration: Here is what a study on 2700 leaders reveals:

  1. CEOs who saw “independence” as their defining character trait were twice as likely to underperform as other CEOs. Twice as much!

  2. Charismatic and confident leaders are not more likely to succeed in their roles.

  3. Self-described “introverts” were more likely to exceed the board’s expectations.

  4. The “weakest” CEO candidates used “I” more than they used “we”.

Competence is critical and business results speak louder than charisma. And great results are achieved by high-performing teams.

There are risks that come with idealizing leaders. These risks can impact the team, the organization and the leaders themselves.

  1. We no longer have an accurate compass to assess performance and competence, because charisma is in the spotlight.

  2. We may end up believing that good enough is no longer enough. Good enough in the hardest of times can make a significant difference.

  3. We may lose contact with reality. Not everything is under control or even manageable in complex situations.

  4. We may get a false sense of certainty coming from the outside. Sometimes, we need to trust that a team can overcome obstacles by putting in the hard and smart work, not that someone will figure things out for us.

  5. Without the team feeling the pressures of reality, they won’t learn how to navigate chaos and uncertainty.

  6. There could be a greater focus on the power which comes with leadership than on the great responsibility that comes with power.

  7. Leaders themselves can set unrealistic expectations for their roles. In the long run, it leads to disappointment and burnout.

  8. In the search for perfection, leaders can underestimate what they bring to the table and the value of their competence.

We cannot ask leaders to be superhuman.

Being a good human being and a competent leader is already a lot.


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