Debunking Leadership Myths — How Leadership Actually Works

As a strategic advisor and coach to CEOs and executives, I’ve encountered my fair share of leadership myths. I’ve seen how closely held beliefs about the way business works actually hinder leaders’ abilities to accomplish their goals and reach their fullest potential—often without them even realizing it.

This is why it’s useful to debunk common leadership myths; discuss the reality behind these pervasive misconceptions; and talk about ways to override them for clearer thinking, more purposeful action, and better results in business and beyond. 

We’ll start with a basic myth that has plagued almost every executive I’ve ever met: 

I need more “what” and “how” knowledge to grow my business. 

So many business leaders have determined that any issues they’re facing in their business—from personnel to profit—simply stems from a lack of knowledge. They conclude that if they just had a bit more information, they could easily accomplish their goals and resolve the problems that keep them up at night. 

This is rarely the case. 

Execution usually isn’t hampered by a lack of knowledge or skills; CEOs and their teams generally know what to do and how to get it done. And if they don’t, there is plenty of information, insight, and advice out there in all kinds of forms—from books to podcasts and mastermind groups. 

So, if you actually know what to do and how to do it, why isn’t it happening?

Though it took me years of experience and loads of research on neuroscience, behavioral studies, and social science to uncover the answer, it’s actually relatively simple: there is a huge disconnect between how we think leadership works and how it actually works.

Most of us think the process of leadership looks like this (see figure below):

1.   We learn new things from a variety of sources, including our personal experience, formal education, books, seminars, conferences, mentors, staff, and peers.

2.   We think about what we’ve learned, combine it with available data, and engage additional brainpower and research from industry experts to process all of that information and determine what to do next.

3.   We use these conclusions to commit to what we want to do and figure out how to do it.

4.   We act on our commitments, all while embodying our core values, maintaining accountability, and honoring our priorities. In this leadership utopia, the results of our actions provide additional perspective and learning that loops us back to the first step in the cycle.

How We Think Leadership Works

Mark Green - Speaker / Business Coach / Author

Unfortunately, for most of us, the process isn’t as tidy as we think. While our experience, knowledge, and thinking do form a framework within which to commit and act, the next steps are not nearly as straightforward as they seem.

What we don’t realize is that before any commitments happen, all that raw material—lessons we’ve learned, advice we’ve received, and more—is filtered through three unconscious forces operating in our brains: motivators, habits, and beliefs

How do these forces intervene? 

·      All of our choices are motivated by one of two forces: fear or inspiration. Often, fear wins out, leading us to pick safe bets that can undermine our aspirations. For example, studies show that fear often leads individuals to make choices based solely on the potential of a catastrophic event, no matter how unlikely.[1]

·      Habits can significantly limit our intentions too. While habits serve an important purpose in our lives—allowing us to complete mindless functions while focusing on more pressing issues—they are also hard to break, keeping us in a comfort zone that blocks progress.

·      In addition, beliefs about who we are inform how we behave. If you don’t see yourself as the leader you aspire to be, it’s much more challenging to make the choices and commitments that will get you there. 

Motivations, habits, and beliefs inhibit you from acting on what you know, and thus act as hidden growth killers, limiting your ability to make rational, optimal commitments and preventing you from achieving what you set out to do.

These unconscious factors don’t only influence you to make suboptimal commitments in the first place, they also take their toll once you’re ready to implement your plan. In fact, they are with you every moment of every day and at every step in your leadership journey. This is why business feels really hard, even when you know exactly what to do and how to do it!

In reality, the process of leadership actually looks like this:

How Leadership Actually Works

Mark Green - Speaker / Business Coach / Author

The good news is you can escape the limits of your mind. 

These obstacles can be overcome with a set of strategies and tools. You can use specific techniques—or Activators—to change the trajectory of your thinking, and therefore, your behavior. When you know where your invisible limitations lie and you have concrete tools to overcome them, you can control your motivators, habits, and beliefs, enabling more productive commitments and actions. 

In future articles, I’ll cover some of these Activators and other tools that can help you reach your goals and become the leader you aspire to be. 

Stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll tackle the leadership myth that “experience pays” (spoiler alert: it doesn’t!) and outline the process to develop productive leadership habits. 

In the meantime, I invite you to visit my website to learn more about my first book, Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done, and to access freeassessments, tools, and more information on how to get better at getting things done. 

[1] Chanel, Oivier and Chichilnisky, Graciela. “The Influence of Fear in Decisions: Experimental Evidence.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Vol. 39. No. 3. (2009): 2. Web. 27 June 2018. 

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter — particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Key to Innovation

“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development.

The Moral Bucket List

We all know that our “eulogy virtues” are more important than our “résumé” ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way.

The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated

While most companies run employee-recognition programs of some sort, all too often they produce eye rolls from those being recognized. Instead of giving people a meaningful sense of appreciation, they become just another box for managers to check and are completely disconnected from employees’ accomplishments. Some companies try to make programs more relevant by giving specific awards to individuals who’ve, say, created and led an important new initiative, “embodied” the organization’s values in their behavior, or had a significant impact. Yet that approach has problems too: Awards can be seen as an elite opportunity for a chosen few — and leave the majority of the workforce feeling left out and overlooked.

If managers could make a far broader group of employees feel appreciated, the benefits would be considerable. Adam Grant and Francesca Gino havefound that when people experience gratitude from their manager, they’re more productive. Another researcher recently found that teams perform tasks better when their members believe that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.

Here are a few additional thoughts to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. What fear or habit or belief is preventing you from making a decision or taking an action that you know is something you should do? Find the corresponding tool here to work though your Hidden Growth Killer.
  2. Upon whose shoulders is your success built? Reach out to the most influential 1-3 people on your list to express your appreciation and explore further synergies.
  3. How can you immediately implement some of the 5 employee-generated ideas for managers about giving recognition?

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…

  1. Subscribe to my newsletter at 
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  3. Book me to speak at
  4. Buy Activators at
  5. Buy Creating a Culture of Accountability at
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