#RethinkLeadership: Myths about Leadership Behavior

Marissa_Mayer_Headshot3It’s work-life déjà vu all over again.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is having another baby. Well, this time, she’s having twins, and, yet again, she’s being very vocal about planning on working soon after she gives birth. The last time she made similar proclamations, a media firestorm followed and it has done so yet again this week after her post about her plans.

One of the key issues when it comes to her very public decision is the message it sends. Anne Weisberg, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, pointed out in a Guardian article this week, that

… how corporate leaders handle the issue of parental leave is “hugely symbolic” for their own employees and, in the case of a female boss, women everywhere.

She must know it’s not just a personal choice. I gave her a pass when she just arrived at Yahoo and then took little maternity leave, but now she does not have to prove herself as a CEO; the company is no longer in transition – but now people will read from this that if you want to be a leader you cannot do what your company even allows you to do, you’ve got to be there all the time and it’s work above everything else.

So, if Mayer defines leadership as someone who sacrifices on the home front, how does that impact what we expect from leaders and leadership behavior in general? The behavior of leaders does matter, and it may be time to debunk the myths out there.

As part of Families and Work Institute’s ongoing #RethinkLeadership initiative, we asked our panel of experts the fourth in a series of five questions meant to get us all rethinking what leadership looks like.

Question #4

What is the biggest misconception that managers have about effective leadership behavior and what it takes to develop a leader?

126e751Meredith Sadin, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of California, Berkeley/UCSF


The biggest misconception managers have about leadership relies on the outdated myth of an aggressive, command-and-control leader. In John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio’s book, The Athena Doctrine, they debunk this myth. They asked 64,000 people in thirteen countries to list the qualities of the ideal modern leader. Across the globe, competencies like independence, aggression and pride are only weakly correlated with perceptions of true leadership, while skills like trustworthiness, empathy and flexibility are strongly preferred.

And these qualities are not simply what people want in a leader, they are instrumental in producing the outcomes that businesses care about. For instance, a leader’s empathy is highly correlated with lower turnover and higher job satisfaction among employees; their flexibility is associated with long-term stability; and trustworthiness is tied to ongoing team performance.

We are depriving ourselves and our organizations of some pretty fantastic outcomes by perpetuating an old myth of leadership. What would it look like to give up the ghost and adopt a more connected, patient, empathic, consistent model instead?

1cd94e0Kunal Modi, a management consultant who worked for Teach for America and the White House National Economic Council, and a contributing author to “Lean In for Graduates” 


The biggest misconception that managers have about effective leadership is that there is a singular model for it at all. Effective leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. Some lead loudly, some lead quietly. Some lead with gut instinct, some lead after thorough analysis.

The biggest mistake managers make in developing leaders is trying to mold them to some illusionary north star conception of what leadership looks like. However, that conception is frequently shaped by a host of unconscious biases and is likely not the best model for every individual.

The most important thing for managers to do is to be attuned to the differing styles and strengths of each of their team members. Ultimately, encouraging everyone to build upon what makes them unique as a leader – perhaps their ability to build consensus or listen to feedback – and creating an evaluation system that recognizes those areas of uniqueness, draws the best of out people and the organization as a whole.

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