In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer speaks to three pervasive leadership myths that reinforce the status quo that we observe around us. They sound like sensible propositions, but all of them send us in the wrong direction:

  • Myth 1: The leader is the person at the top. Leadership challenges that institutions are facing today cannot be solved with this old understanding of leadership. In order to face today’s leadership challenges, many, many people in the organisation–sometimes everyone–need to be involved.
  • Myth 2: Leadership is about individuals. In fact, leadership is a distributed or collective capacity in a system, not just something that individuals do. Leadership is about the capacity of the whole system to sense and actualize the future that wants to emerge.
  • Myth 3: Leadership is about creating and communicating a vision. The problem with this myth is that it focuses primarily on broadcasting a message rather than on something much more important: listening.

Listening is the most important gateway to co-sensing and co-creating the emerging future. The world is full of grandiose leadership visions that were beautifully communicated – before they crashed and burned. Think Enron, Lehman Brothers, GM, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld vision leading up to the Iraq War. The problem was not a lack of vision. The problem was that the vision was completely out of touch with reality. The problem was a lack of listening.

All great leadership starts with listening. That means listening with a wide-open mind, heart, and will. It means listening to what is being said as well as to what isn’t being said. It means listening to the latent needs and aspirations of all people.

If we change our understanding of leadership from being about an individual to being about everyone, and stop the unhelpful thinking that leadership is about having and communicating an opinion, we can find powerful ways to lead at our best, more of the time.