Four myths about leadership

2 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

Breaking leadership paradigms

As an introverted junior researcher, how can I promote change within my think tank? Isn’t leadership for extroverted types? Don’t I need a position of authority? These are some of the questions I was asking myself when I joined the OTT-TTI Fellowship Programme, designed to cultivate and strengthen leadership skills.

I realised that I had a lot of preconceptions (and misconceptions) about leadership. In this article I want to myth-bust some of the most common ones, and talk about what this means for think tanks.

Myth one: Leadership is for extroverts

In westernised cultures the concept of leadership tends to be linked to extroversion; quiet and introverted people aren’t ‘leadership material’.

As Susan Cain points out in her influential book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, + we are a society that values personality more than character, and a person of action rather than of contemplation.   

While charisma, confidence and dominance can be effective characteristics for leaders, as people tend to trust and follow people with these traits, Susan Cain argues that introverts can also be very effective leaders. And what’s more, they are often the most creative leaders.

Introverts tend to show more commitment, writes Susan. They listen to their teams and get better results.

Introverts, therefore, bring a different set of skills to leadership roles. Unfortunately, society often asks introverts to act as extroverts and, in this process, they lose their authenticity and therefore much of their leadership potential.

Myth two: Leaders are always in charge

A big misconception is that leadership requires a position of authority, such as being a manager, boss or director. This sounds logical, and in a traditional sense of leadership it can be true.

However, I’m happy to have realised that having a formal position of authority is not a prerequisite for being a good leader. As Ronald Heifetz says in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers,+ leadership often comes from ‘the legs of the table’.

Ronald argues that being a leader without formal authority actually has some advantages. For example, you have latitude for creative deviance, space to focus on one single issue and a closer proximity to people. All this gives the leader without authority a broader perspective to make better decisions.

Myth three: Leaders should be saviours

In a series of different stories, Ronald Heifetz shows that in times of trouble we tend to look for a saviour – a leader who will give us an easy answer.

In fact, what we need are leaders who don’t just give out easy and quick answers, but rather ask us difficult questions and make us part of the process of solving problems.   

In this sense, the definition of leadership that I found the most helpful was that given by Roland Heifetz: an activity that mobilises a collective to do something, tear down problems or reach a common goal. It is related to actions more than words.+

An important ingredient for good leadership is passion that translates into action. Leadership effectiveness depends a lot on our own convictions and how we transmit them to our team. And this can come from extroverts or introverts, from senior and junior positions.

Myth four: ‘Leaders are born, not made’

I’ve heard it said many times that ‘leaders are born, not made’. This is a dangerous thing to claim. It means that if people don’t have the preconceived characteristics of a leader, they may not get supported or encouraged to share their potential with their teams.

Some of the world’s most influential leaders were not ‘born’ to lead; they do not have big extroverted personalities, nor positions of authority, nor seek the spotlight – but instead have passion and conviction that they turn into action. Just a few examples: Mahatma Ghandi, who led the Indian independence movement, is well known for his introverted personality and lack of formal authority; Rosa Parks, also known as ‘the first lady of civil rights’, was a regular women with no elected office who inspired people through her conviction and actions; and today Greta Thunberg, a self-proclaimed introvert and young climate activist who has inspired people globally.

What does this mean in a think tank context?

Thinktankers often have to multitask, learn quickly and step outside their comfort zone. I’m a researcher, but since joining INESAD I have had to learn how to manage events and projects and contribute to communications activities. Our willingness to do this shows that we have passion and commitment for what we do. It also shows that our work is more than just doing good research.

Many (certainly not all) researchers will be introverts. It can be a solitary and reflective role that may attract introverted types. Part of a researcher’s skill is to analyse a problem from different perspectives. And this is an important leadership tool. We have an opportunity to contribute out-of-the-box solutions for common think tank challenges, which should be considered.

Also, young thinktankers, in junior roles, can contribute innovative and creative ideas, too. For example, what role can technology play in helping us reach younger audiences?

Think tank teams tend to be diverse. By embracing this diversity and our individual skills and characteristics, we will be able to show, and deliver on, our potential. And these opportunities are open to both extroverts and introverts.

If we don’t break these paradigms and bust the myths, there will be a lot of wasted leadership potential in think tanks.