Sunday, 19 September 2010

Myths and Mistakes of Leadership

Do you remember the election? A strange question perhaps as it is only just over 4 months since Election Day, and the month that proceeded it was – to coin most political commentators at the time – “unique!” The election battleground was drawn up in the usual way (a head to head between the Conservative and Labour Parties) but then Nick Clegg rather put a spanner in the works; after all whoever heard of a boxing match between three fighters? However, looking back (isn’t hindsight such a wonderful thing?) one thing is clear: all of the leaders bought into typical leadership myths and made mistakes.

Take leadership. All the leaders spoke about was the need for strong decisive leadership. That’s myth number one. Leadership needs to be effective and appropriate which sometimes might be strong and decisive, but it also might be collaborative (it will need to be in the hung parliament!), reflective, consultative, or visionary. So mistake number one is only to have and hang your hat on one style. Different situations and different people need different types of leadership so to suggest what was needed was simply strong decisive leadership was to suggest that we are all the same and that the approach that suited – for example Maggie Thatcher during the miners’ strike - was the only style needed. Actually looking even further back to her time, perhaps that was one of her big mistakes as a leader; the lack of flexibility in her style. Leaders need to be able to flex their style to suit different needs and situations which means that they continually need to consider – consciously – what is needed in terms of leadership.

Myth number two is that leaders have to make bold decisions – about the economy, the deficit, immigration and so on. Decisions need to made, but often the “Buck Stops Here” mentality kicks in and leaders assume that they have to make all the decisions. They don’t, and they certainly don’t have to make instant decisions. A great question for leaders (come to think of it for everyone) to ask themselves is “By when do I have to make the decision?” Instant decision making – the sort that strong decisive leaders so often make – has a habit of backfiring because it is made without the benefit of reflection and knowledge. So mistake number two is to assume that they have to be swift and decisive. Instead leaders need to find the ability to stop, stand back, reflect and then make decisions.

Myth three? Myth three is that leaders have to tell people what they need to do. Leaders need to lay out what people need to achieve, and then get out of the way and let people find the best way of achieving it. That way they’ll release the potential in everyone. Adopt a parental approach and people will automatically assume a child like role, looking to you for answers, Of course this might feed your own ego and need to be seen as a strong decisive leader, but that would be mistake three because you will limit your team to your capability. Years ago, just after I had completed my Officers Training in The Royal Marines, I took over a troop of 30 in a Commando Unit. There was (and indeed still may be) a mantra that you never – as an officer – asked your men to anything you could not do. How daft - and that’s the polite word! If I had followed that mantra then I would have limited the capability of 30 professional men to what I could do. Luckily for me my Troop Sergeant (Gary Jones) quickly dispelled any thoughts of that approach.

We can earn much from this election, but sadly I fear that much of it will be how not to lead!

Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd ( , a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280


  1. No problem with Myth 2 - though all too often I find "leaders" would rather gather so much knowledge that their contemplation is so bunged up they cannot actually "decide" to make a decision. Often it can be better to decide and get something wrong (at least you will know why it went wrong and can adapt), than get it wrong by not making a decision (when you have no idea why it went wrong and you need to go through the "analysis" phase all over again!)

  2. For Robin: but wouldn't the top of the pyramid simply consider the result (i.e. being wrong) regardless of the attempt or the failure to attemp? Shareholder value is a hard taskmaster, not accustomed to listen to "the reason why something went wrong".