When it comes to getting into the heads of the world’s most successful business leaders, Jo Owen wrote the book – several of them, in fact. He has interviewed thousands of leaders, and is himself a founder or co-founder of eight organisations with a combined turnover of £100 million – his latest book reveals the biggest myths that are holding you back…
1. ‘It’s Tough At The Top’ THE MYTH: When we think of a leader we see someone who’s in the thick of the action, stepping forward in a crisis, in control and taking people where they need to go – a hero, basically. For Jo Owen, this creates the myth that being a leader has to be hard work – after all, if it’s not then why pay leaders more? ‘If you want to discover real stress, do not go to the top of the firm, go to the middle,’ writes Owen, because this is where low control combines with competing organisational priorities. Once you get to the top you can decide to make it as hard as you want.
THE SOLUTION: According to Owen, one of his best bosses was also the laziest because he followed this advice: ‘Focus on the big issues where you will make a difference; focus on what you do best; delegate everything else… in practice, leaders at the top prefer the hard work, as it reinforces their sense of purpose and importance. But that does not make you a good leader.’
The job of the founder is not to be the smartest – it’s to get the smartest people onto the team
2. ‘Founders Make Amazing Leaders’ THE MYTH: Imagine you come up with a killer idea for a startup, get the ball rolling and make your first sale. You must be the right person to lead the operation, right? Actually, many founders fail because they are not good leaders, says Owen. ‘The job of the founder is not to be the smartest person on the team; it is to get the smartest people onto the team.’
THE SOLUTION: It can be hard to let go of your baby – after all someone else could run it into the ground, or transform it into a giant, orange monster. ‘As a founder… you will have the inspiration, passion and vision. This makes you the natural cheerleader-in-chief in dealing with customers, investors and partners,’ says Owen. You have the right to define your own role, but don’t think that means you have to be CEO.
3. ‘Leadership Is About Status’ THE MYTH: We’re conditioned to think that the person with the most impressive title, or status must be the leader. But, as Owen points out, a leader takes people where they would not otherwise have gone – so a legacy-protecting boss could easily be a great manager, rather than a leader. (Owens adds that management itself is an undervalued skill.) ‘Never confuse position with performance. Leadership is about what you do, not what your title is,’ he writes.
THE SOLUTION: The positive thing about busting this myth is that it means you can lead whether you’re the CEO of a startup or a junior manager in a big firm. ‘In every firm, there are moments of uncertainty, doubt and ambiguity; there are crises and new opportunities where no one is sure what to do. These are the moments of truth when leaders step up and followers step back.’
4. ‘Leaders Know How To Lead’ THE MYTH: Successful leaders will all have a theory on why they made it – sometimes this will be true for them, but leadership is contextual, says Owen. ‘Do not believe the gurus who claim to have the universal formula for success in three easy steps.’ Even if you could apply a successful leader’s theory, business moves so fast that it will be out of date. ‘You cannot win in the future with yesterday’s formula.’
THE SOLUTION: Grow and learn fast. ‘Leadership is like a game where you do not know the rules but the rules and the referee keep on changing,’ says Owen. He recommends starting with your own success theory, even if it’s wrong, but don’t be wedded to it. ‘If you learn and grow fast, then you can adapt your success theory in response to experience.’
Communication is about listening more than you talk
5. ‘Leaders Are Great Motivators’ THE MYTH: Followers expect leaders to have a vision and be motivational. Owen’s own research shows 76% of leaders think they’re good at motivating, while only 32% of their followers agree. What’s more, Gallup research shows that 70% of the variations in employee engagement (being enthusiastic and committed) are down to the quality of the boss. So, being motivating is important, but a lot of leaders suck at it.
THE SOLUTION: The good news, according to Owen, is that we don’t have to start acing show-stopping speeches to get people motivated. Having a vision where each team member recognises their own valuable role in it is vital, as is communication. ‘Critically, communication is about listening more than you talk,’ he says. And don’t walk around with a face like thunder. ‘Being positive means focusing on your team members’ strengths, not their weaknesses; focusing on what can be done in the future, not what went wrong in the past.’
6. ‘The Leader Is In Control’ THE MYTH: No one wants to admit to being out of control, but the fact is that it’s impossible to be over everything all of the time. ‘So the challenge for leaders is to know what they can and should control directly, and what can be left to the organisational machine,’ says Owen.
THE SOLUTION: Owen recommends maximising the signal to noise ratio, where the signal is leadership and the noise is all of the meetings, emails and reports your organisation churns out, which could swallow up your whole day. So, build a good organisational machine to deal with the noise. And then, as well as having a clear vision, you need a clear agenda, or simple set of priorities, which you push through to their logical conclusions. ‘If ‘customers come first’ then that might mean making your products easy to use, making the helpline helpful, being generous on refunds and listening to what customers actually want.’
7. ‘Leaders Are Charismatic’ THE MYTH: We often see leaders as larger than life characters who inspire us to do more, better. This is dangerous on several levels, says Owen who points out that charisma has a dark side and says of the thousands of leaders he has interviewed, one of the most charismatic is under investigation for fraud. He also says that effective leaders are rarely charismatic, and that it’s a character trait that you can’t teach or learn, so it’s not the answer.
THE SOLUTION: As well as having a clear vision and the ability to motivate, effective leaders need to be honest with their teams – as Owens says, no one wants to work for a leader they do not trust. Teams also crave clarity: ‘If you really want to demotivate and annoy your team, make decisions slowly and then keep on changing your mind… Even if the situation is uncomfortable, clarity and decisiveness create a way forward and offer the hope of a solution.’
8. ‘The Leader Is The Smartest Person In The Room’ THE MYTH: It’s surprising how many of our work relationships mimic family ones – from banter with your ‘little sister’ at the next desk to the ‘parents know best’ vibe of relationships between bosses and employees. This leads to the myth of the leader being the smartest and everyone delegating upwards, leaving teams with no accountability for the solution.
THE SOLUTION: Owen says we need to change the script from parent-child to adult-adult. ‘Ignore the hierarchy. Instead of thinking like boss-team member, simply think of the team where each person has a different and vital role to play… You all have an equal contribution to make.’ And find ways to bring purpose and challenge to your teams’ work rather than letting them delegate upwards.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Jo Owen explain why good leaders think differently…
You can find out where to buy Jo Owen’s Myths Of Leadership at Kogan Page
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