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Leadership myths

Section Editor(s): Raso, Rosanne MS, RN, NEA-BC

doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000546205.24833.7a
Department: Editorial

Editor-in-Chief, Vice President and CNO, NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, New York, N.Y.

Let's not get caught up in myths or be comfortable where we are with our leadership.

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I 've been developing a list of leadership phrases on my “not” list, meaning they just don't ring true to me. Maybe you have a list like this, too. It's worrisome to be stuck in a paradigm without a fuller perspective. Let's see if our thoughts on leadership myths coincide.

Here's a relatively easy one: “Our policy is our practice,” or some version of this belief. It seems to be magical thinking that policy and/or procedure will translate to actual practice 100% of the time unless you teach it, measure it, give feedback, reinforce it, and iterate as appropriate. Add in that human beings aren't perfect even in the best of circumstances. Sometimes you don't even know what the policy is until you look for it, when we aren't infrequently surprised. Clearly these are all management issues.

How about “I communicate enough,” “I recognize enough,” or “I'm visible enough”? Any of these statements are doubtful. Kerry Patterson, et al. wrote in their excellent book, Crucial Conversations, “Praise more than you think you should, then double it.” Wise words. Communication, recognition, and visibility are so critical to successful leadership—there's little possibility there could be enough.

Lucian Leape, Harvard professor and medical error guru, brought the punishment myth to the forefront of leadership literature—if we punish people, everyone will make fewer errors. The literature and our own practice underscore that when it comes to clinical error, fear of punishment isn't a motivator, nor is a warning notice in one's employee file. It's about systems and human factors. Manager Richard Grote promotes “positive discipline”—a day off with pay to reflect, then come back to a written agreement not to repeat behavior. Even better are positive consequences for good performance to truly build internal motivation.

Let's change topics. Have you ever heard, “Leadership is about results, not people”? Wrong. Leadership must be about people; without them, you won't get results. Have you ever tried to get more from people by saying, “Try harder”? That's another myth. Trying harder, or working harder, isn't real advice. It isn't actionable or useful. Coaching on specific behaviors is a much more productive approach.

One of my favorite myths is that “title matters.” First, titles vary by organization, so it's the scope of responsibilities that matter. Another reason this is a myth is that a title doesn't make someone a leader.

Do you believe that “workarounds are bad”? Not necessarily so. Of course, if workarounds increase patient safety risks, then they must be routed out and stopped. What they may mean is that the process is broken and people are seeking ways to be more efficient, possibly leading to innovative practice and better solutions. Workarounds can be good.

I saved a controversial one for last. You may have heard this on your latest performance review: “These are the weaknesses you have to improve.” Unless those opportunities for improvement are essential to be successful in your position, your energy is often better spent developing your strengths. For example, if you're good at staff engagement strategies, then learn how to be great. This will bring you more joy than working on being great at something you really don't like at all. (Budget, anyone?)

My intention isn't to confuse you. Let's not get caught up in myths or be comfortable where we are with our leadership. There are two sides to every coin, every story, and even common leadership phrases. Question, listen, and learn.

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