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 necessarily consciously, 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 governing organizational life today sustains the belief that only the relatively few "gifted" ones can be anointed leaders in an organization and so trusted to make the decisions and do the commanding and controlling of everyone else. But we all desire to make significant contributions, to feel self-worth, to be recognized for what we do ”and many organizations are structured to make this nearly impossible . Every management act and decision follows from assumptions, generalizations , and hypotheses, frequently subconscious , concerning human nature and human behavior, setting the stage for how we design, organize, and run companies. Rarely do leaders question these assumptions, or think about where they might have picked them up, but rather are inclined to think that this is just the way people are.
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 employees are never developed or used. Rejecting the myth, I believe, will pave the way for more open organizations to foster greater value and joy in our working lives.
A company's success is generally attributed to the actions of its chief executive (most likely a man). But all too often a chief executive leaves a successful company to replicate that success at a different company, but then turns out to be a flop. Too bad for him, we think ”he must have lost his touch. Of course, the real reason is that he never had it in the first place. With the first company he got lucky and was there when the market dynamics were in his favor. At the next company, he bought into the idea of his own genius ”the myth-of-leadership mentality ”and trusting only his own wisdom, made decisions that probably went against the dynamic and created a failure. Today the majority of successful "leaders" are lucky rather than good. The myth of leadership keeps us from understanding this.