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What if Everything You Think You Know About Leadership Is Wrong?

Every individual has something that is called an Implicit Leadership Theory (ILT). It’s a mental model that represents the concepts of how we define leadership. Eden and Levitan (1975), who first coined the term, express their concept of ILT as the behaviors of leaders in the light of what is expected of them. Organizational members rely on ILTs to sort people into one of two categories – leader or follower. They intuitively note the actions and characteristics of individuals, compare them to their ILT’s, and favor as leader those who match their “prototype” (Forsyth, 2006). ILTs are learned and assimilated from social interactions, interpersonal encounters, and prior experiences with past leaders.

An interesting analysis of implicit leadership theory, as it relates to this study, was conducted by Souba and Souba (2018) who examined four common misconceptions concerning leadership. They suggested that,

“These misconceptions are so much a part of the fabric of our taken-for-granted common sense worldview of leadership that it makes it difficult for people to consider anything to the contrary” (p. 196).

Their research addresses a void in literature which produces the faulty assumption that current perceptions of leadership characteristics can traverse the evolving landscape of organizational change. This logic hinders the advancement of innovative leadership theories due to current ILT’s which are still based on hierarchical models and fail to recognize how innovative leadership is venturing away from those models. Souba and Souba’s (2018) four current misconceptions and emerging realities follow.

Misconception #1 - Positional power is the leader’s most important lever.

Souba and Souba (2018) argue that language, instead, is the leader’s most important resource.

“What leaders say and how they say it makes all the difference in the world. Imagine the diminished impact of Martin Luther King’s words if he said, ‘I have a business strategy,’ instead of 'I have a dream'” (Souba & Souba, 2018, p. 197).

This shift from positional power to the power of language is a sign of a trend toward organizational flattening. Influence is more important in today’s world than positional power.

Misconception #2 – Leadership works by cause and effect, and can, therefore explain good and bad outcomes.

This is no longer relevant and has been replaced by a new concept called entanglement theory (a term borrowed from quantum mechanics). Entanglement theory suggests that the way a leader perceives and makes sense of an experience, and then communicates that perception is more important than the experience itself. This way of thinking rescues the leader from victimization and elevates him/her to agency in all situations. It reimagines the flow of authority and accountability by eliminating the ability to hide behind an elevated organizational position where one can avoid the negative consequences of their actions.

Misconception #3 – Leadership decisions and actions are based on objective facts.

This stems from our propensity to apply the scientific model of empiricism to everything we do. If this were true, every leader, given the same phenomena, would arrive at the same conclusions. Instead, Kuhn (1970) suggests that “facts” are dependent upon the social understandings, cultural backgrounds, personal histories, and scientific orientations an individual possesses. He goes on to suggest that, all research disciplines are “scientific” but include “incommensurable ways of seeing the world and of practicing science in it” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 4). Rather than basing decisions on objective facts, McAdams and McLean (2013) suggest the way humans construct truth is by way of narration.

We interpret the world in two ways – as narrative and analysis. We develop our understanding of who we are, where we are going, and why as a narrative. Narrative articulates how we feel about things (affect) better than what we think about them (cognition). The “truth” of a story is how it moves us. (Ganz, 2007, par. 2)

This move from objective facts to the narration of the facts illustrates the multiple perspectives that make up an organization. As organizations evolve from survival mentalities to global mindsets (Beck & Cowen, 1996) various perceptions, or narratives, become increasingly important. In a global world, narratives can no longer be pushed in one direction. They need to oscillate back and forth along the organizational structure.

Misconception #4 –Knowledge is the ultimate foundation for effective leadership.

This third-person approach which requires the acquisition of knowledge neglects the necessary first-person experience of becoming knowledgeable. This partnership between being and knowing is the emerging reality modern organizations are recognizing. Transformational leadership, the most talked-about leadership style in today’s environment, requires altering one’s way of being to create outcomes that until now have not been possible. The current working environment is chaotic due to the multiplicities of technological advancements coming down the river. Solutions to dilemmas, for which organizations have no preexisting resources, tools, solutions, or even sensemaking strategies for accurately naming and describing the challenge, are located outside our long-standing beliefs and assumptions (Souba & Souba, 2018). A hierarchy’s tendency to maintain the status-quo naturally prefers knowing over being because knowing is manageable and predictable, whereas being is adaptive, innovative, and volatile.

Implicit leadership theories are roles being played out on a stage where members interact according to those roles, and gradually form expectations based on how they play out in their individual narratives. Research has demonstrated that implicit prototypes function effectively only when leaders and followers have matching expectations (DeRue & Ashford, 2010) (Shondrick & Lord, 2010) (Xiao, Wang, Liu, & Liu, 2020). This can only be achieved in an organization where authority and accountability are delegated in equal proportions and flow in alternating currents, back and forth, throughout the structure.


Beck, D. E., & Cowen, C. E. (1996). Spiral dynamics. Maiden: Blackwell.

DeRue, D. S., & Ashford, S. J. (2010). Who will lead and who will follow? A social process of leadership identity construction in organizations. The Acadamy of Management Review(35), 627-647.

Eden, D., & Leviatan, U. (1975). Implicit leadership theory as a supervisory determinant of the factor structure underlying superviosory behavior scales. Journal of Applied Psychology(60), 736-741.

Forsyth, D. R. (2006). Group dynamics. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McAdams, D., & McLean, K. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

Souba, W. W., & Souba, M. H. (2018). Challenging your implicit leadership theory. Journal of Leadership Education, 195-207.

Shondrick, S. J., & Lord, R. G. (2010). Implicit leadership and followership theories: Dynamic structures for leadership perceptions, memory, and leader-follower processes. International

Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology(25), 1-23.

Xiao, H., Wang, D., Liu, X., & Liu, Y. (2020). Effect of implicit prototype theory on employees' proactive behavior. Social Behavior and Personality, 48(5), 1-12.

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