Two Common Leadership Myths That Can Block Progress

Posted on 02 December 2020

Sometimes you have to go counter to what you were taught

Photo by Frankh

Leaders often look for lessons and experiences to help them navigate uncertain circumstances. Most frequently base their actions on a combination of past knowledge, homespun wisdom and instincts which have been formed over a lifetime of personal and professional experiences. Like many of my peers, in the course of my career, I have had to rely on these things many, many times. I have also learned that there are times where you must go against your instincts and past conditioning to make the progress you seek.

Relying on the past produces management myths: sayings, beliefs and stories that contain, not wisdom, but ideas long outdated and techniques that are accorded honor they don’t deserve. Thinking through the most common myths instead of accepting them without question—then letting go those that can’t stand up to demands for rational proof—might well improve your interactions with co-workers, clients, consultants and others that you come across in the course of your daily business. You don’t need outdated ideas. You don’t need proverbial ‘wisdom’ that is plain wrong. Many of the most common management ideas have only become ‘normal’ because they’ve been so often repeated without thought.

Myth 1: Trust must be earned

For example, the old adage “trust must be earned” is one which most of us grow up hearing. As children, we are told “don’t trust strangers” and later in life we carry that skepticism with us, impinging, or at a minimum delaying, our ability to get close to those that we come in contact with in our professional dealings.

I live by a modified version of this adage within my career: “trust must be unearned”. Under this approach, I believe that I am able to encourage a results-oriented mindset, allowing my collaborators to buy-in to our mutually agreed goals; and in the spirit of achieving positive results “faster, better and cheaper”, create teams which start from a position of trust and are able to move quickly from ideas to results.

I don’t suggest that this always works—it does not. However, I have found that people respect an approach such as this, and more often than not, rise to the occasion. Furthermore, nothing seems to engender trust amongst team members more than collective success, recognition and reward. Remember, as a boss, you’re the single most important factor in whether your team has high productivity and high morale. This approach allows you to use your influence as a leader to achieve outcomes.

Myth 2: Admitting you don’t know will lower your credibility

One of the challenges with teams (especially new teams) is that many people view asking for help as a sign of weakness. For them, doing so publicly demonstrates that they don’t understand the issue being discussed. In any meetings that I host, or presentations that I give, I always encourage questions right at the outset and let the audience know that to me, asking questions is a sign of strength and leads to better, clearer communications.

My sense is that if one person has a question, chances are very high that others have the very same question. In fact, when I myself am in the audience, be it a highly attended meeting or a one-on-one meeting with a client, prospect or peer, I make sure to ask for any clarifications that I need. I don’t let fear of others’ perceptions of me or my inquiry dictate my level of understanding. Even more, I have come to believe and frequently state that “my ignorance is my greatest asset”. I learned this concept when discussing my business with an “outsider” that I had just met. I now see that someone’s “blissful ignorance” permits them to ask questions without constraint or influence of embedded paradigms.

It is clear to see that my oft-mentioned focus on outcomes has the ability to modify our way of thinking or understanding of long-held beliefs or instinctive behaviors. Generally speaking, when I engage a new team, say an internal team tasked with achieving some organizational objective, or encounter a new client opportunity, I find that deploying these approaches trusting immediately and asking lots of questions—leads to improved performance. It does leave one vulnerable to being taken advantage of or appearing ignorant; but my experience indicates that the risk-reward trade-off is favorable in the long run.

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This post was written by:

Nina Simosko - who has written 16 posts on Slow Leadership.

Nina Simosko is Global Chief Operating Officer for the worldwide SAP Education organization and is a member of the SAP Senior Executive team. She is responsible for more than half a billion euros in global software and services revenue. She has more than 14 years of sales and operations management experience with a tremendous understanding of the global high-tech industry. Prior to joining SAP in 2004, Nina worked at Siebel Systems, where she served as the General Manager of Education for the Americas, Asia Pacific/Japan and also ran Global Support & Maintenance Sales. Nina joined Siebel after working at Oracle Corporation running the Global Education Sales & Marketing team. Nina is involved in the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives, the Professional Area Network for Women in Technology, and the Alliance of Technology and Women. She recently joined the board of directors of YES Reading, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering students through literacy and investing in underserved public schools.

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10 Comments For This Post

  1. CK says:

    This is my take on the two myths

    Myth 1: Trust must be earned
    - A leader should lead by placing his trust in others (staff) to do their job. Trust has to start SOMEWHERE and there is no better place than from the leader!

    Myth 2: Admitting you don’t know will lower your credibility

    A boss creates fear, a leader confidence.
    A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes.
    A boss knows all, a leader asks questions.
    A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting.
    A boss is interested in himself or herself, a leader is interested in the group.
    - Russell H Ewing

  2. Nina Simosko says:

    Hi CK,
    Thanks as always for your comment. As to your take on the two myths, I certainly agree with you that a leader must set the example of placing trust. My point is simply that waiting to earn trust from work colleagues could delay progress or results. And, as I note, it opens one up for being taken advantage of, but in my own personal experience, it has worked rather well to help my teams hit the ground running.

    As to your thoughts on myth 2, your quote from Russell Ewing is spot on. As a leader myself, I can only hope that those who work with me, view me in the way that Ewing defines a leader.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  3. sambit says:

    In day to day functioning you interact with so many people and so many chance acquaintances. if you insist everybody earning the trust you will have to wait too long to work with them. Pragmatically it is better to trust people unless otherwise informed. Acceptance of ignorance is the first step to learning and is indeed a great asset. In fact people come up with the latest and enrich/ upgrade you once you notify inclusion by admitting that you do not know everything. It makes people willing accomplishes in functioning as they own up the implementation. I entirely agree with the article.

  4. Nina Simosko says:

    Hi Sambit,
    Your pragmatism is completely accurate, at least from my point of view. Time is one of the greatest assets and wasting it is simply too costly from an opportunity cost perspective. Also, as you say, admission of ignorance is a tremendous show of self-confidence and opens up many opportunities to those willing to take such steps. Thanks as always for your insights.

  5. Ryan says:

    Great article - I heartily agree with these.

    On the first one (Trust) - I think this extends to the whole approach of working with new people in that if you approach people on the assumption that they are hard-working professionals, they are more likely to be just that. This was similar to a lesson my wife and I learned as foster carers - even “problem” children need to know that you think they are good kids with the capacity to be much more.

    On the second point, there is a good quote that I know (but can’t attribute) - “The beginning of wisdom is saying ‘I do not know’”.

  6. Nina Simosko says:

    Hey Ryan,
    Thanks for your comments. It is true that sometimes saying something enough times can almost make it so. Perhaps a bit along the notion of “mind over matter”. Also, I really like the quote you shared and might just use it myself!

  7. CK says:

    Didn’t Socrates say something to that effect? And because he admitted NOT knowing (and was looking for one more wiser than he) that he was considered one of the wisest men in the world (at that time)?

  8. Nina Simosko says:

    Hi CK,
    You are correct. It was Socrates who made such a comment. Hard to argue about his wisdom!

  9. greatmanagement says:


    Two great points and so well made.

    Myth 1: Agree, totally. All my staff gets all my trust from day one. I trust them 100% percent and I tell them.

    Myth 2: Not asking for advice is a big, BIG weakness. A good leader knows when to ask…a great leader surrounds them self with people who can answer all the questions!


  10. Nina Simosko says:

    Hey Andrew,
    Thanks for your comments. It seems as though you have experienced very similar results as I have in my own career by simply following these two approaches. It’s amazing that more managers/leaders don’t benefit from these easy to execute approaches.

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