Why our view of leadership is warped

There’s a lot of opinions out there about leadership. 

Not so much the theories and models, more our blueprint for what a leader is and how they behave. It’s a blueprint that appears to be held universally. I’m sure many of us have been in that development session where we have to list out the qualities of a leader and out they come; charismatic, overtly confident, strong, intelligent, a great orator, dynamic, assertive, and a ‘lead from the front’ kind of person. These traits don’t, however, always make for a leader we would want to emulate. 

The thing is, that blueprint of leadership is a falsehood. Research (good research, based on science and stuff) shows that these qualities don’t actually make us want to follow someone as a leader. The strong, charismatic leader is, in fact, the kind of person we find aggressive, untrustworthy, and out for themselves. They might encourage a few sycophants who want to hold on to the coattails of their success (because there is no doubt they are successful in so much as they advance materially for the very reason that they appear to be what we want from our leadership blueprint), but they don’t engender loyalty in the majority of the team. Most, even the sycophants, who will ‘perform’ because they are fearful, not because they are passionately productive, which limits just how well they perform.

Blueprint of Leadership Vs Leadership we want 

When we take a look at the kind of leaders that people actually want, it’s a very different picture. Those leaders are quietly successful. They are successful because of their behaviours, but these behaviours mean that they don’t garner attention and are not headline-grabbing. Yet, when you encounter one of these leaders, it is a truly special experience and one that stays with you as what great leadership should look like. These leaders listen, are curious about their people, they create a ‘safe’ environment for their team, they leverage the teams’ strengths, are empathic, and they encourage collective responsibility by discouraging blame. We would most likely describe them as ‘honest’, ‘ethical’ and as ‘having integrity’. In fact, they are the ones who embody those company values that are plastered across the office walls and shout out from its website. You know the ones, the ones that make employees cynical because they don’t match their lived experience of the organisation!

What is it that these ‘special’ leaders have? 

The textbooks would define it as ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (EQ). Many would say they are ‘good with people’, which always makes me smile because we say that as if it’s a rare thing. It isn’t. Most of us, the huge vast absolute majority of the population are good with people. We have to be. We are. We’re human. We cannot get through life without interacting with other humans, however shy, introverted or independent we might think someone is. No man is an island, and all that. 

It’s just that we let our traditional (I’d say ‘warped’) view of leadership allow us to think that people who are good with people are the exception, not the rule. Because we have recruited and prompted against this charismatic leader ideal, we’ve convinced ourselves that its what’s required to be successful and most that are given leadership responsibility seek to emulate this as their leadership style, when it is frequently at odds with who they truly are.

And therein lies the problem. Most leaders – and I have met and worked with a lot – assume the title and with it they assume a mantel of what they think that means. They then put aside their ‘human-ness’ and start wearing a mask of someone they think they ought and need to be in order to be worthy of the title. To be successful, the opposite is needed. A great leader tunes into their own humanity and seeks to do the same with those around them. They see their team members as individuals, they look at what makes them tick and get the best out of them, and they see themselves as the facilitators of success, not the cause of it. The reality is that great leaders are great team players. They influence, support, and challenge towards a collective goal. It’s what humans did as they evolved to survive. It goes to the very essence of our species. It’s why we have an inherent need to belong and for connection to others. It’s built into our DNA.

Developing leaders and teams 

It’s why at Being Human at, we’re passionate about developing leaders and their teams through reminding them of that humanity. When we bring along our human self and connect with others’ human selves, that’s when we leverage everyone’s potential, and a team will perform at its best. For us, these are foundational human behaviours and we believe they’re not complicated. That’s why our development programme is called SIMPLE.