Focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. Leaders are born, not made. You can't manage what you can't measure.
Those are common leadership axioms that most of us subscribe to. But Dan McCarthy thinks we need to think twice. The head of executive development programs at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, and a prolific leadership blogger, he cites those and seven other shibboleths that we need to be wary of, if not discard. "Although each has a kernel of truth, there is some danger in taking them at full value," he said in an interview.
So rethink these notions:
1. Ignore your weaknesses and leverage your strengths
We're told we're paid for our strengths and need to develop them. But although research claims to show this is true, he notes that other research counters that advice – as does the logic of what we see around us in the workplace. "The reality is that weaknesses matter. If the skill is important and you are weak, then you need to improve as it will hold you back," he said. If your boss or a 360-degree evaluation identifies a weakness in an important area, be alert.
2. You need to know more than anyone who works under you
He heard a senior executive imparting this advice to new managers, and declares it nearly set his hair on fire it was so astoundingly wrong. "It's a recipe for arrogance or micromanaging," he said. You can't possibly know more than the sum of everyone who works for you, nor should you – concentrate instead on the higher-level duties associated with your job, while not ignoring the details your team is digging into.
3. It's okay to be friends with your employees
He saw this rebound badly for one of his former bosses, as people took advantage of being in her inner circle of friends and shirked responsibilities, even though she tried to rein them in. These days, younger employees who rise to management feel they can still be pals with their former peers and he believes they need to learn to distance themselves, making sure they can objectively hire, promote, reward or discipline.
4. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it
He counters that most of what we do at work can't and shouldn't be measured. "Managers that subscribe to this advice end up paying attention to the minutia that's easily measured and ignoring what's really important," he writes on Smart Blogs, where he first took aim at these shaky nostrums. You can't, for example, easily measure an innovation culture. The intangibles that matter – and that you must manage – often are hard to measure.
5. Don't pay attention to criticism
In leading, no doubt you will generate criticism. It comes with the territory. Expect it. At the same time, however, it's vital to not be deaf to criticism. Listen to it; learn from it. "Great leaders need to be open," he said in the interview.
6. Leaders are born, not made
He hears this assertion even from folks in the leadership development field, who ought to know better. Sure, intelligence, energy and drive are vital to leaders, and that is something you tend to be born with. But other attributes of successful leadership are developed through practice and learning. As leadership guru Warren Bennis puts it: "Leaders are made rather than born."
7. The best way to learn leadership is from successful CEOs
He notes that often entrepreneurs have a great idea and lots of energy that allows them to be enormously successful but are horrible leaders. He points to Steve Jobs, who in many accounts is depicted as one of the world's worst managers. "I know of a CEO who handed out Job's book to his executive team as a leadership tutorial. Pity those poor employees!" he writes.
8. No news is good news
Actually, it might just indicate as you rise in the organization that you have become isolated and shielded from bad news by your guardians. Make sure it's possible to tell you bad news – that your door is open and messengers won't be shot. Be curious and find out what's really happening.
9. You need to pull up your sleeves, pitch in and get your hands dirty
This is true, sometimes. But often it signals you aren't willing to give up work you used to do, that you still like or feel close to, and that you are diverted from your real responsibilities.
10. You should be the first at work and the last to leave
This is a recipe for burnout, for you and your staff (even if Mr. McCarthy admits to often being first in and last out at his offices). You'll be more effective in the long run – and your employees more productive – if you provide a better model of work-life balance.
He sums it all up: "Don't believe everything you hear – and that includes leadership bloggers and journalists at national newspapers."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter