Ten Leadership Myths Debunked

“Everything rises and falls on leadership”

-John Maxwell

Law enforcement agencies are defined by the quality of their leadership. Leaders play a major role in establishing a vision, setting organizational goals, and motivating officers to reach those objectives. On the other hand, law enforcement leaders who espouse the wrong values or who model inappropriate behaviors can create an atmosphere of apathy; frustration; and, in certain cases, corruption and abuse. To further complicate matters, the problems facing today’s law enforcement agencies are complex, often requiring the combined talents and efforts of dedicated people throughout the organization. To be successful, today’s law enforcement leaders must be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to build trust, inspire others, cultivate organizational change, lead teams, develop cooperation, and promote ethical behavior.

While leadership is one of the most important components of any successful law enforcement organization, it is probably the least understood. The image that many officers hold of leadership is often based more on anecdotes, stories, and legends than facts. The heroic vision of leadership featured in the news media and popular press has created a tendency among officers to think about leadership only in the context of authority, titles, and people who are in charge.1 The idea that leadership requires formal authority is one of several popular myths surrounding the concept and practice of leadership. Many of these myths have persisted for so long that they have assumed an air of legitimacy. However, when stripped of mythology, many officers are surprised to learn that leadership is really about teamwork; empowering others; and prioritizing the goals, development, and successes of others.

Law enforcement leaders often accept myth over fact because they do not know how to distinguish them. It is only by recognizing and understanding these myths that leaders can ever reach their full potential, as well as help others develop their leadership potential. This article identifies and debunks 10 popular leadership myths. It also offers suggestions for how to best avoid each myth, as well as advice on how to better lead officers in today’s complex and demanding environments.

Myth #1: Common Set of Leadership Traits

One of the oldest and most popular myths surrounding leadership is the belief that all good leaders possess a common set of traits. Popular leaders are often portrayed as charismatic, courageous, and decisive. According to leadership scholar and author Gary Yukl, although studies have linked certain behaviors with good leadership, no universal set of traits or behaviors has yet been identified that is effective in every instance.2

In other words, when it comes to leadership, there is no “one size fits all.” Some situations may demand a leader to be decisive and action-oriented, while others may require patience and collaboration. Rather than focusing on a particular set of traits, it appears to be more beneficial to match a person’s leadership style to the demands of their followers and the constraints of the situation. In other words, placing the right leader in the right position seems to be more important than trying to identify leaders with a particular set of traits who will perform successfully in every case.

Myth #2: Leadership Requires Formal Authority

The second myth is the idea that leadership requires formal authority. In other words, the ability to influence others is restricted to individuals appointed to leadership positions.3 This view is perhaps best reflected by the statement: “When the department promotes me, I will become a leader.” Despite the continued popularity of this myth, it overlooks the simple fact that true leadership cannot be appointed or assigned; it is not based on title or position. Rather, the measure of leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less. Leadership is the ability to influence, inspire, and motivate others to achieve organizational objectives, regardless of a person’s rank, title, or status. Thus, anyone who is able to inspire others to do more and to become more is a leader. The trust, respect, and credibility that make leadership possible must be earned. Officers will gravitate naturally toward others whom they respect and trust, regardless of the individual’s level of formal authority. It is the power granted by others that makes someone a leader, not the amount of formal authority associated with a person’s title or position. Titles are granted, but it is a leader’s character and behavior that earn respect.4

Myth #3: Leaders Are Born, Not Made

The third myth—the belief that leaders are born, not made—is one of the longest standing misconceptions in leadership.5 The idea that leaders are born with special attributes that make them different from followers can be found as far back as the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Plato maintained that only a select few have the superior wisdom required to lead others, while Aristotle believed that people are marked from birth for subjugation or command. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. While people may be born with certain predispositions for leadership, most leadership skills can be learned through the right combination of study, practice, and experience.6 For example, a leader’s abilities to communicate effectively, build trust, and motivate others can all be improved with training, practice, and feedback. While an officer who is naturally a 4 (on a scale of 1–10) may never develop leadership skills that rate a 10, he or she can, nonetheless, improve to a 7 or 8.

Myth #4: The Lone Warrior

In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz asserts, “The myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior: the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enable him to lead the way.”7 This myth has become so pervasive in certain law enforcement organizations that officers often shed their responsibilities and accountability during times of crisis in the belief that the leader will save the day. Leadership, rather than being the solitary responsibility of a single individual, is a collaborative activity. No single person has all the answers, nor is any single person solely responsible for the successes or failures of a law enforcement agency. Today’s law enforcement organizations are composed of dozens; hundreds; and, in some cases, thousands of employees. The idea of a solitary genius overlooks the fact that leaders and followers are engaged in a common mission. Identifying problems, setting goals, and performing the work necessary to achieve those objectives requires leaders and followers to work together, not in isolation.8

Myth #5: Leadership Requires Charisma

The fifth myth is the notion that leadership requires charisma. Despite the continued popularity of this myth, this is simply not the case. While some leaders are charismatic and extroverted, many others are not. In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins points out that many of the most effective leaders in his study were humble, self-effacing, and reasonably quiet.9 This is because personality is not equivalent to leadership. While charisma can be a powerful motivating tool, it can also be a liability when used to manipulate or to deceive others. Charisma can also create hero worship; effectively shielding the leader from the harsh truths and hard decisions required of his or her position. In many cases, successful leaders are the very opposite of the popular, flamboyant figures portrayed in the media. Although their effects on followers are undeniable, effective leaders go about their work thoughtfully and quietly. What separates good leaders is not their personalities, but their humility, sense of purpose, and abilities to influence and to motivate others.

Myth #6: Leaders Are Different Than Followers

The sixth myth is the belief that leaders should strive to differentiate themselves from followers. While there is little doubt that certain people possess more natural leadership abilities than others, good leaders focus more on their similarities with followers than on their differences. This is because officers naturally follow leaders who best represent the group’s identity and interests.10 Anytime people come together as a group, they typically ask (a) What makes this group different? (b) What do members have in common? and (c) How do members compare to other groups? Effective leaders act as the prototype for other members by representing the group’s values, norms, and goals. Followers are also more likely to support a leader who champions the group’s cause, while encouraging the development of individual members.11 Thus, rather than spending time trying to separate themselves from followers, good leaders look for ways to best represent the group’s identity, interests, and goals.

Myth #7: Lead from the Front

The seventh myth is the notion that good leaders are aggressive, self-confident, and action-oriented. They take the initiative, establish the vision, control the agenda, make the important decisions, and lead the charge. If you are going to be a leader, according to this view, you need to lead from the front. While there are clearly times when a leader must advance the charge, there are others times when doing so can be counterproductive.12 Anytime a law enforcement leader leads from the front, it is virtually impossible to direct or modify the actions of team members bringing up the rear. Conversely, a leader at the rear of the team is able to observe and correct the actions of other members as the demands and constraints of the situation change. Moreover, a leader who continually assumes the lead fails to develop other leaders. In his book, Winning, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, points out that a leader’s primary job is to develop more leaders, not more followers.13 It is only by building strong teams, sharing responsibilities, and empowering others that today’s law enforcement leaders can develop the next generation of leaders.

Myth #8: The Pioneer

The eighth myth is the view that being first makes someone a leader. Certainly, many pioneers in their fields have also been effective leaders. Being innovative, however, does not necessarily translate to being a good leader.14 This is because expertise or special skills in one area does not automatically create leadership ability. In other words, the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required to be first are not always the same capabilities required to lead effectively. Leadership, by definition, is the ability to influence, motivate, and inspire others to achieve organizational objectives. Thus, it is a person’s ability to influence others to accomplish organizational objectives and not their ability to innovate that makes someone an effective law enforcement leader. While being first can be good, it does not always translate to effective leadership.

Myth #9: “I Can Lead Anyone”

The ninth myth is the belief that “I can lead anyone.” This is the idea that a good leader can lead virtually anyone person or group in any situation, given the opportunity. Although some leaders are effective at leading diverse groups of followers under a variety of circumstances, the idea that a single law enforcement leader will be successful in every instance is simply not true. The best leaders have a clear understanding of their limitations. They understand their strengths, they understand their weaknesses, and they understand when a job is best performed by someone else. Good leaders also recognize that every follower is unique, with a distinct set of values, beliefs, and expectations.15 Whereas some followers may be best influenced by a particular leader or leadership style, others are not. Any law enforcement leader, regardless of his effectiveness in a given setting, will not be successful in every situation or with everyone. Some followers may be unable to support the leader’s particular style, while others may be opposed to the leader’s beliefs, goals, or values. Thus, part of effective leadership is matching the right leader to the unique characteristics and needs of followers.

Myth #10: Leadership Success Is Achieving the Highest Position Possible

The tenth, and final, myth is the suggestion that the higher an officer is promoted within a law enforcement organization, the greater his or her leadership success. As previously discussed, titles have no leadership value. While an officer’s appointment to a leadership position is often the first step to becoming a person of influence, simply holding a particular rank or position does not make someone a leader.16 Leadership requires the ability to influence others. If a person cannot influence others to follow willingly, regardless of his title or position, he is not a leader. This is because true leadership is different than appointed leadership. Leadership is, at its core, about building relationships, developing others, and accomplishing organizational objectives. Without the help of competent, energetic, and committed followers, it is difficult and, in some cases, impossible to get things done. In the end, good leaders realize that effective leadership is less about ego and more about others and the organization. This is why the best law enforcement leaders consistently place the needs of the organization and the development of others above their own interests.


Understanding, recognizing, and guarding against each of these myths is an important step to becoming a better leader. However, good leadership requires more than simply avoiding popular myths. There is simply no way around it—good leadership is hard work. The best law enforcement leaders work diligently to earn trust, develop influence, connect with others, mentor future leaders, act as role models, and add value to their organizations, while continuing to learn, grow, and demonstrate accountability for their actions. Today, more than ever, officers, organizations, and communities need good leaders. Fortunately, leadership can be learned and leaders can learn to increase their influence. The challenges facing today’s law enforcement organizations are too important to leave to chance. To meet today’s challenges head on, every officer must accept the challenge of being the best leader possible, while law enforcement agencies must continue to invest in and to develop the next generation of leaders. ♦

1 Robert Hogan, Gordon, J. Curphy, and Joyce Hogan, “What We Know about Personality: Leadership and Effectiveness,” American Psychologist 49, no. 6 (1994): 493–504.
2 Gary A. Yukl and Rubina Mahsud, “Why Flexible and Adaptive Leadership Is Essential,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 62, no. 2 (2010): 81–93.
3 David L. Bradford and Allan R. Cohen, Influence Without Authority (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
4 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
5 For a discussion of the “Great Man” theory, see Ralph M. Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research (New York: The Free Press, 1974).
6 John C. Maxwell, The Five Levels 5 Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential (New York: Center Street, 2011).
7 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 251.
8 James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).
9 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
10 S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, and Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence, and Power (New York: Psychology Press, 2011).
11 Bernard M. Bass, Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, & Managerial Applications (New York: Free Press, 2008).
12 David L. Bradford and Allan R. Cohen, Power Up: Transforming Organizations Through Shared Leadership (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
13 Jack Welch, Winning (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
14 John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998).
15 Stephen J. Zaccaro, Roseanne R. Foti, and David A. Kenny, “Self-Monitoring and Trait-Based Variance in Leadership: An Investigation of Leader Flexibility across Multiple Group Situations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 76, no. 2 (1991): 308–315.
16 John C. Maxwell, How Successful People Lead: Taking Your Influence to the Next Level (New York: Center Street, 2013).

Brian D. Fitch, PhD, is a lieutenant and a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department. Dr. Fitch holds faculty positions at California State University, Long Beach, and Southwestern University School of Law. He possesses a master’s degree in communication studies and a doctorate in human development. He can be reached for comments at bdfitch@lasd.org

Please cite as:

Brian D. Fitch, “Ten Leadership Myths Debunked,” The Police Chief 81 (August 2014): online only.