I use as my definition of myth one supplied by James Robertson in his American Myth, American Reality (1980):
Myths are "the way things are" as people in a particular society believe them to be; and they are the models people refer to when they try to understand their world, and its behavior. Myths are the patterns of behavior, of belief, and of perception, which people have in common. Myths are not deliberately, or
necessarilyconsciously, fictitious. (xv)
The myth of leadership plays to our human disposition to see history as a series of dramatic events involving only a few heroic, gifted individuals. It is much easier to account for things this way. To see events as a consequence of a single heroic person is less intellectually challenging than to see them as the consequence of many different factors and the subtle influence of small acts. When we view history this way, however, we tend to overlook and devalue the impact of the vast majority of people who lack status but who truly contribute to making things work.
The myth of leadership
These rank-based assumptions rob too many employees of selfworth and create irresolvable tensions for others. The myth is therefore a brake on the natural evolution and success of business organizations as well as a hindrance to the enjoyment of a meaningful life in business institutions. It makes business and other organizations much less productive than they could be, as the real talents of too many
A company's success is
To understand the power and durability of the myth of leadership ”why it has such a strong hold on our
Three events, beginning in the seventeenth century and maturing in the nineteenth century, have
The triumph of Newtonian science and its
The understanding of human nature inherent in Enlightenment philosophies
The reaction to Enlightenment rationalism in Romanticism, creating the modern concept of individual genius and celebrity
Each of these events has worked its way into modern business assumptions about leaders and followers,
Employees are productive
Employees are selfish
Employees are caring
Leaders are heroic individuals
Each individual is unique
Leadership command and control
General input and participation
Knowledge at the top
Knowledge at all levels
The influence of science on business is a key factor in our first rankbased assumption.
Employees are by nature lazy and need external motivation.
Employees tend to be productive and self-motivated.
In most business organizations, employees are treated as costs that have to be justified. They are just parts, expensive
Newton's model seemed to justify its
Taylor believed that leadership must be imposed from the top down in a command-and-control manner. The
In this system, employees were reduced to machines competing for
Now there is general agreement that the understanding of the nature of reality in classical science is not only wrong with regard to the natural world, but is detrimental to organizations as well. The majority of processes and systems found in nature cannot be reduced to nothing more than the behavior of inert bodies in motion. Similarly, employees are not machines, but living,
When managers treat their employees as unmotivated "cost centers" who require constant supervision, employees become defensive and respond by doing the bare minimum to avoid making mistakes or standing out. It doesn't take long for an employee who started out with great
The second rank-based assumption finds its roots in the nature of the individual as described in the writings of Enlightenment
Employees are by nature selfish and self-seeking and therefore need external control to keep them in line.
Employees tend to be caring and willing to cooperate.
Hobbes argued that individuals are naturally in constant anxiety motivated by two basic emotions: (1) a negative emotion, the fear of death, and (2) a positive emotion,
Hobbes, like most Enlightenment philosophers, wanted to discover how and why individuals join together in organizations. Organizations will only come into existence, he argued, if autonomous individuals
No one has captured the ironic nature of this conflict better than the writer Franz Kafka. He depicts the perplexed individual trapped in a maze not of his own making ”the more he struggles, the more entrapped he becomes. The protagonist in my favorite Kafka story,
(1915), is a young office worker by the
"Mr. Samsa", the manager now called, raising his voice, "what's the matter? You
barricadeyourself in your room, answer only ˜yes ˜ and ˜no, cause your parents serious, unnecessary worry, and you neglect ”I mention this only in passing ”your dutiesto the firm in a really shocking manner. The head of the firm did suggest to me this morning a possible explanation for your tardiness ”it concernedthe cash payments recently entrusted to you ”but really, I practically gave my word of honorthat the explanation could not be right. But now, seeing your incomprehensible obstinacy, I am about to lose even the slightest desire to stick up for you in any way at all. Your performance of late has been very unsatisfactory; I know it is not the best season for doing business, we all recognize that; but a seasonfor not doing any business, there is no such thing. Mr. Samsa, such a thing cannot be tolerated." (Kafka 1981, 99)
In this passage we see the first two assumptions of the myth of leadership: (1) employees are naturally lazy, and (2) they are naturally prone to dishonesty and self-seeking behavior ”even to theft against the employer. Kafka's antiheroes are always getting caught in the absurdity of command-and-control hierarchies that threaten their wellbeing for seemingly trivial reasons. Here, with the anonymous and unpredictable power the manager and head of the firm hold over Gregor's head, his fear of failure is heightened. Today, with almost constant layoffs and restructuring, which seldom actually improve organizations, this nameless and capricious power held by leaders over their followers is incredibly
A rank-based organization informed by the myth of leadership tends to limit the creativity of employees to the narrow confines of their job description. What these rank-based assumptions overlook is that most people work for a broader reward, including at least the following three things:
A chance to develop skills and new talents
The opportunity to contribute to a cause larger than
Employees bring their whole person to work, but the rank-based organization seeks to limit their involvement to impersonal
The third rank-based assumption has given the leadership myth its potent emotional
Leaders are heroic individuals who have risen above the masses ”possessing either an innate or learned genius. They are better than those
beneaththem, thus have the right to control decision making in organizations and do all the commandingand controlling.
Leaders are no different than employees ”they each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
I once worked with a leader who had quickly climbed to the top of his organization. When we first talked soon after his promotion, he was anxious to tell me he wasn't surprised by his meteoric rise, "for the cream will always rise to the top." This, I believe, captures an essential part of the leadership myth, namely, that those at the top of the organization are somehow better, or more deserving, than those beneath them on the organizational chart. What are the roots of this
The Renaissance saw the rise in the fame of
Two books on the subject, both of which were tremendously popular when published, were pivotal. One is a series of lectures by Thomas Carlyle published in 1841 as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. The other, published in 1850 by Carlyle's friend and correspondence partner Ralph Waldo Emerson, is entitled Representative Man. Both books promote the greatness in men and provide the arguments for the importance and presence of "great men" in society and business. Carlyle wrote:
discoursehere on Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world's business, how they have shaped themselves in the world's history, what I call Hero-worship and the Heroic in human affairs . A large topic; indeed, an illimitable one; wide as Universal History itself. For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world. (1)
If you believe, following Newtonian science, that the majority of people are by nature lazy and need external force to motivate them ”and if you believe, from the selfish
Of course, the reality of this heroic leader frequently resembles the "emperor's new clothes." The executive I mentioned earlier, who quickly climbed to the top of his organization, was not respected by those beneath him in rank. As I learned more about him and his successes, I
The fourth rank-based assumption is that the corporate leader, as hero, must also have nearly superhuman capabilities.
The heroic leader can control a complex organization from the top down, can accurately predict what is going to happen in the future, and should therefore be making all the critical decisions.
Only with input and participation from all levels of the organization can leaders make effective decisions about current and future business conditions.
This leader becomes the
This rank-based assumption not only keeps decision making at the top of the organization ”thus robbing the organization of the intelligence and talents of the vast majority of employees ”it also corrupts communication. A rank-based leader will see his position as more important than the
This view of genius in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Romanticism merged with Hobbes's belief in the nature of the individual, and the belief in how they interact from Newtonian science, and created the myth of leadership in twentieth-century organizations to justify rank-based forms of social arrangements. It is a belief that must be constantly justified in organizations. The justification is enforced through the tight control of information via closed books and closed meetings; through the media's
In the fifth rank-based assumption, knowledge and understanding are also
Employees tend not to know the best thing to do, while leaders do know.
closestto where the work is done have a good grasp on what needs to happen.
Numerous books on leadership promise to reveal the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun, Moses, or Abraham Lincoln, or even Jesus as a CEO. They attempt to justify an implicit theory of motivation and human nature where only a few great individuals can lead ”and if you want to lead, you have to be just like them. Not surprisingly, it is also a theory that tends to reward only a few with tremendous benefits in salaries and other bonuses; for if it takes superhuman
In fact, some recent studies show an inverse relationship between executive compensation and profit performance of the company. A report issued by Scott Klinger (2001) of United for a Fair Economy showed that over half the companies in the top 10 percent in executive pay had a stock price that underperformed the S&P 500. In addition to the poor profit and stock performance, companies with the highest paid CEOs were more likely to announce significant layoffs within three
More often than not, celebrity CEOs are a product of their organization and not its cause. Very few find similar success when they go somewhere else, though they do pull in quite substantial compensation packages. Not surprisingly, the myth is supported by those who have been anointed leaders as well as by those who would like to be anointed leaders and reap the huge
Paradoxically, our present myth of leadership, which arose from currents of thought that stressed individualism and individual greatness, has resulted in organizational managers turning into carbon copies of one another. In the words of Edward Young (1683-1765), "Born
He becomes a captive of his position, his perks, his office. What apparently confirms his identity and thus his existence in fact subtly takes that identity and existence away from him. He is no longer in control of himself, because he is controlled by some thing else: his position and its exigencies, its consequences, its aspects, and its privileges. (73-74)
The myth of leadership also creates several mistaken assumptions about ways to motivate employees. For instance, many leaders assume that the chief way to motivate employees is to give them more money. However, research
It makes it almost
You must manage (manipulate) employees to get them to do what you want.
You don't manage peers; you cooperate with them.
I was once asked by a regional vice president to deliver some out-of-the-box leadership training to a
It seems that the regional VP perceived this group of sales representatives as troublemakers who asked too many questions. The VP figured that by