Let’s be honest – it often feels like a lot of mythology surrounds many of the leadership greats beloved of MBA graduates and those with any vested interest in leadership development. Whether on social media, in textbooks or a column such as this, the stories of near-obsessive, totally brilliant and incredibly driven individuals are spoken of in revered tones, their autobiographies pored over, and their public pronouncements shared and repeated in an effort to learn the secrets of their success.
It’s not that these stories are untrue, but rather that in their repetition and constant investigation they can often bend and shift their subjects until they become truly superhuman individuals in the minds of many.
This myth-making consequently creates a truly unreachable gold standard of leadership that no “normal” person can hope to attain. It can create the sum total impression of a leadership version of Marvel’s Avengers, where each leader is always excellent and always on. They eat, drink and sleep leadership, unshakeable in their leadership status whatever they may do.
This is why these souped-up versions of reality are so appealing – we might be looking for a leadership hero who can help to illuminate our own way to better leadership, or we might be seeking comfort in attributing an individual’s success to their constant unreachable level of dedication to their role. We want to believe in the totality of these stories and the completeness of their leadership brilliance.
Even where we can stretch to allow ourselves to imagine these heroes in their downtime, let’s say imagining that Bill Gates might have always liked to paint landscapes to relax after running Microsoft, we’d probably still prefer to believe a narrative that portrays him as a surprisingly talented – perhaps even extraordinarily gifted – artist, rather than imagine him splodging out rough, feeble creations that no self-respecting six-year-old would claim as their own. The story just works better that way.
This idea of a leader who is always a leader is a strange one in any event, as over in the non-mythological real world it is really essential that leaders hang up their capes occasionally and become “regular people” for a time. It is an old idea that loneliness comes with being at the top, and many leaders of the biggest organisations on the planet have certainly echoed that sentiment over the years – most recently Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook. Always being the leader at every moment of the day and night is a recipe for some pretty lonely times, and while some measure of this is perhaps unavoidable, it is by no means the eventual lot of every person in charge. It is important to have some sort of alter ego.
I’ve talked before about the potentially negative aspects of ego in leadership and management, and there really is no greater antidote to this than a child, parent or close friend effortlessly relieving you of any pretensions through their total immunity to your status in the workplace.
We all, of course, have a work persona that probably strays some way from how others who have known us longer. It is probably also some way away from how we view ourselves. Leaders might seek to lead with a style and approach that is closely aligned with their core values and principles, but even so there is probably a “work version” of their personality that it’s better to step away from occasionally.
Becoming too defined by your job is an issue for many professionals of very different stripes and standing, and has the capacity to create both huge levels of pressure and a reduced perspective that comes with being too close to your work. Whether avoiding this comes simply from allowing the role of leadership to fall away when you spend time with friends and family or when you invest time and energy in a pursuit unrelated to your job is up to you. The important thing is to take the completeness of leadership myths with a grain of salt – seek lessons in them of course, but don’t become trapped by the too-perfect ideal that they can create.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group
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