All Articles Leadership Management Is anything we thought about leadership true?

Is anything we thought about leadership true?

Is all the leadership advice we hear wrong?

5 min read


Donald Trump



Last week, I planned to write about a leadership technique backed by research to improve workplace motivation, engagement and productivity.

But, given the recent political season, I found myself wondering if anything we’ve believed about leadership is true. Does humility matter? Should leaders apologize? Is it better to tell people the truth or what they want to hear?

I have spent the best part of my life exploring how to help people thrive at work. In today’s reality, I find myself questioning everything I thought I knew. This is not a bad thing. But it sure makes it challenging to write a typical blog post. Again, not a bad thing!

In the spirit of seeking to understand, I am posing a few questions that keep me awake at night. I’m not doing this so you will lose sleep, but so we might pursue the answers, together, from different perspectives.

Does humility matter?

Jim Collins wrote in Harvard Business Review, “The essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having a ‘Level 5’ leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.”

Collins paints a compelling and counterintuitive portrait of the skills and personality traits necessary for effective leadership. He identifies the characteristics common to Level 5 leaders: humility, will, ferocious resolve, and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves.

It makes sense that a humble leader is also an empathetic leader who can relate to people’s feelings and better meet their needs. I wonder, Jim, are we wrong about this?

Should leaders apologize?

Ken Blanchard wrote a book on the topic, “The One Minute Apology.” He writes, “Apologize not for the outcome, but because you know you were wrong and it’s the right thing to do. Every one-minute apology makes you more aware of how much your behavior affects others.”

“People who don’t apologize think the world revolves around them,” Blanchard writes. “They lack humility. People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less.” There’s that humility thing again.

Alec Baldwin, playing Trump in a comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” couldn’t even say the word. Trump’s not the only politician who finds it painful to admit wrong doing. Maybe apologizing does make you look weak. I wonder, Ken, should we apologize to all those leaders who have fessed up to making a mistake or for being imperfect?

Is it better to tell people the truth or what they want to hear?

People tend to overlook the flaws of a candidate if they believe the candidate will fix their problem. This explains why voters are able to bypass their own candidate’s lies and justify their positon by pointing to the opposing candidate’s lies.

PolitiFact, a Pulitzer-prize winning website dedicated to fact checking the media, politicians, celebrities or anyone who has a microphone, concluded over 18 months of presidential campaigning that covered all the candidates—some more than others. One hundred and forty-eight of Hillary Clinton’s statements were true or mostly true compared with Donald Trump’s 41 statements. Clinton was ruled to have 29 false statements compared to Trump’s 111. Clinton earned 7 “Pants of Fire” ratings, — the most egregious category of lies — to Trump’s 57.

Maybe this isn’t a joke: “How do you know a politician is lying? His (or her) lips are moving.”

A Trump supporter explained to me, “When it comes to political leaders, I simply accept the fact they lie.” The quantity of lies was irrelevant to her. If you talk to Trump supporters, his lies were more acceptable than Hillary’s. Talk to Hillary’s supporters, and the preposterous number of Trump’s lies meant they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — trust anything he said.

“Truthiness,” Stephen Colbert reminded us, is “believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact.” Colbert coined another new word: “Trumpiness“: “Believing something you know isn’t true.”

Truth, Truthiness, or Trumpiness, Stephen, I wonder if truth-telling matters when people are invested in bigger issues?

I also wonder:

  1. Do a leader’s values really matter?
  2. Does trust matter?
  3. Is there a difference between being authentic and saying whatever you’re thinking in the moment?
  4. If people can benefit from a leader’s self-orientation, is it okay to be self-serving?

Ultimately, these question arise: Does the quality of leadership matter? Do we accept different qualities for someone running for or becoming the leader of a country compared to leaders of public- or private-sector organizations? Do we perceive effective leadership differently when we vote for our leader versus when we have no power to appoint who leads us?

Pondering these questions, I realize there’s one thing I don’t ever need to wonder about — how to spend the rest of my life. I am more dedicated now than ever to understanding the phenomenon of leadership and followership. Obviously, there is so much to learn.

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.