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3 leadership fads that undermine your success

There’s only so much time you can devote to being successful at work, so stop wasting that time on unproven leadership fads.

6 min read


Wrong way


We’re barraged daily by tips and tricks about how to improve our performance – how to hack our sleep, better manage our boss or be our most authentic selves. If we could follow all of that advice we’d become fully engaged, highly motivated, star performers. Unless, of course, some of that advice is actually wrong.

Let’s face it — we’re uncritical consumers of information. We accept that the news in our Facebook feed is accurate. We believe that Gwyneth Paltrow offers dependable health care insights. So, it’s no surprise that we embrace reasonable-sounding ideas about how to improve our work performance, especially if they’re advanced by people with Ph.D. after their names. 

Unfortunately, some of the best-selling books and most-promoted advice on performance are more likely to waste your time than boost your success. This includes three fads that you may know well: focus on your strengths, be an authentic leader and strike a power pose. Here’s what those fads claim and what to do instead:

Please don’t focus on your strengths

There have been millions of books sold that suggest you’ll be more successful if you focus on what you’re good at or hope to be good at. The advocates of that approach call those your “strengths.

The concept that you should focus on your strengths seems like a wonderful recipe to be happy at work. You don’t have to confront any hard truths about what’s holding you back or risk failure by trying something new.

However, there’s absolutely no independent scientific proof that people who focus on their strengths perform at a higher level or develop faster than those who don’t.

 On the other hand, there is research that shows: (1) we have to change our behaviors to be successful as we move up in an organization, so today’s strengths may be irrelevant tomorrow; (2) we each have fewer strengths than we think we do (if we define a strength as being meaningfully better at something than others); and (3) our weaknesses will slow or stop our career progress.

Focusing on your strengths will help you be better at the exact same things you’re good at today, but won’t help you be good at anything else.

What to do instead: Your strengths are your strengths because of your intelligence, personality and career path — they’ll never stop being your strengths. If you keep turning up the dial on them, they can actually hurt your performance. You may be seen as a “one trick pony.” You may show the less attractive extremes of that strength (i.e. the insightful observer who becomes the cynical critic). Rather than focusing on your strengths, ask the most successful people you know which skills and behaviors you need to move to the next level or big experience. They’ll be happy to identify a few non-strengths for you to focus on.

Authentically bad advice

 It seems difficult to argue against being an “authentic” leader if the alternative is to be an “inauthentic” leader. Maybe that challenge is what has allowed this idea to gain traction among leaders and consultants. The concept started with the best-selling book “Authentic Leadership,” which stated that more authentic leaders — open, self-aware, genuine — were needed to bring the country forward.

Yet, leading academics at Stanford, INSEAD, and Wharton business schools have attacked the concept, and the science suggests that great leaders actually change their behavior and style to meet the needs of the moment. That means that always being the authentic you could hurt your performance more than help it.

Authenticity is often used as an excuse, as in, “I can’t change; that’s just who I am.” That sentiment is laughably false because we each control our behaviors. Other times, it’s the domain of leaders whose egos drive them to show the world how special they are.

What to do instead: It’s certainly helpful to understand the authentic you but your success depends on understanding the “you” that others need to see. Your style has to match the changing needs of your audience in order for you to successfully manage or communicate. In tough times, they may need to see a more compassionate “you.” When someone’s not performing well, they may need to see a more demanding “you.” That means that the authentic you might not get to come through every time. That’s fine. Science says that we can easily fake behaviors and that people believe those fake behaviors are genuine.

Remember that being a great leader or colleague isn’t about you; it’s about others. Forget authentic. Be the person that others need to see.

Take a stand (just not that one)

Launched like so many leadership fads, with a scientific paper and a popular TED talk, power posing comes from research that showed a boost of testosterone occurs when you stand in more aggressive postures. The authors claimed that, “High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.” In other words, if you just stand the right way, you’ll feel ready to take on the world.

That sounds cool, but it’s 100% untrue, according to one of the article’s co-authors, who later came clean about the experiment, and to other scientists who tried and failed to replicate the original research. That hasn’t stopped more than 48 million people from viewing the TED talk, or the power- posing concept from seeping into the category of urban legends.

What to do instead: Just stand any way you want to — it really doesn’t matter.

There’s only so much time you can devote to being successful at work, so stop wasting that time on unproven leadership fads. Be a critical consumer and realize that management advice that sounds too easy to be true, very likely is. There are no shortcuts to success, just hard work and determination. 


Marc Effron is author of “8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest), published by Harvard Business Review (August 2018). Effron founded and leads The Talent Strategy Group and consults globally to the world’s largest and most successful corporations. He co-founded the Talent Management Institute and created and publishes Talent Quarterly magazine. His prior corporate experience includes senior talent management roles at Bank of America and Avon Products. His prior consulting experience includes starting and leading the Global Leadership Consulting practice at Hewitt Associates.

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