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The Immaculate Perception Myth Creates a Leadership Vacuum

Many business owners tell me that the biggest challenge they face is a “leadership vacuum” within their organizations.  They usually identify the following problems at two different levels within the organization:

  1. Their senior level managers, while competent overall, are lacking skills in one or more critical areas: knowledge of the business, capacity to lead, or ability to create and/or implement vision and directives.
  2. The mid-level managers perform their duties quite adequately but fail to demonstrate consistent capacities to think strategically, and then communicate those strategic decisions with others.

While it’s true that “you can’t send ducks to eagle school,” it has been my experience that more often than not, the managers that lack a few critical skills can be developed into fine organizational leaders and strategic thinkers. However, the solution isn’t as easy as having them sit through a training course on strategic thinking or leadership. The real solution consists of changing the driving myths of the culture in which these managers operate.

Myths Drive the Culture of an Organization, True or Not

The driving myths of a culture are simply the stories that each member of the culture collectively believes. The beliefs of every employee from any level of the organization are what shape and influence the culture, which in turn determines the resulting behaviors of those individuals. I identify these stories as myths because, more often than not, they aren’t completely factual or even based in fact. Yet, like myths, they represent greater truths that have been learned and accepted as unchangeable and ever-lasting. These myths become ingrained in each individual or group, and as such, they can be the most powerful force to drive behavior within the culture. This is why I call them driving myths.

Leadership Vacuum Myth

The Biggest Barrier to Leadership Development

I have also coined a term for the myth that most often contributes to the leadership vacuum – the “Immaculate Perception Myth.”  The Immaculate Perception Myth is quite prevalent among small businesses. The essence of this myth is that the owner(s) believe that due to their life experience, family background, and/or entrepreneurial skills, they were somehow immaculately injected with a divine understanding that is exclusive to them.  (It’s important to note that the owners aren’t always the party responsible for creating and driving the myths of organizations.)  When I ask owners how they know what they know about the business, I get a few typical responses:

  • “You get a ‘feel’ for these things,”
  • “It’s obvious,”
  • “Each situation is unique and therefore you can’t just apply a measurement or standard with these things.”

Many owners believe that while others could possibly acquire this same level of understanding, it would take them years and years to get there.

When I ask owners to identify future leaders within the organization, these owners can usually identify certain individuals who show great promise or potential, but quickly point out the weaknesses of these individuals. As if that weren’t enough, they also point out the reasons why these rising stars will probably never be able to overcome their weaknesses.  When I ask about what steps they have taken to develop and grow leaders within their organization, the owner’s response is either, “If I have to tell them, then they’re not leaders,” or “I’ve tried a hundred times, a hundred ways, and nothing seems to work.”

Quite often, senior level managers both perpetuate and get pulled by the very same Immaculate Perception Myth. These senior and mid-level managers see the unique combinations of their talents and strengths as somehow innate, and therefore un-learnable, by others. Believe it or not, the owners might even concur on this point, which further strengthens the power of the Immaculate Perception Myth. Mistakes, miscalculations and unnecessary questions by the potential leaders are seen as further evidence of the fact that they don’t have “what it takes.”  Even the smallest misstep is long remembered by supervisors.

Filling the Leadership Vacuum

Here’s the deal: Businesses that turn these mistakes and miscalculations into learning opportunities, and welcome questions as opportunities for growth, are the very same businesses that give themselves the best chances for long-term survival.

Overcoming the Immaculate Perception Myth can be quite difficult, yet it is possible. It requires some acknowledgment of the fear of putting the fate of the business in others’ hands, and it requires some letting go. (The irony is that much of this is already out of the owner’s control anyway.) The critical aspect that must be constantly addressed is timing or the ever-tricky game of chicken-and-egg. The owners won’t believe in the potential leaders until they’ve proven themselves and, due to the power of the myth in the culture, they probably won’t be able to undeniably prove themselves until they’re believed in.

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