Debunking Myths: “What We Know About Leadership From Science”

By Sabrina Hartono ’21 & Robert Cain ’21

After spending the last 10 years in Australia and Singapore, Professor David Day joined Claremont McKenna College searching for a smaller, high-touch, elite, private college community and looking to repatriate after being overseas for ten years. Drawing from his most previous experience as a professor of organizational behavior and Woodside Chair in Leadership and Management at the University of Western Australia Business School, Professor Day is not only a professor in CMC’s psychology department but also the academic director of the Kravis Leadership Institute.

“I look forward to the opportunity to participate in leadership research and education –which is exactly what KLI does,” he said.

In the past and now at KLI, Day’s research focuses heavily on charting and understanding the trajectories of personal development, clarifying this as “looking at how people change overtime in their journey of becoming a leader.” He investigated this through some of his past projects.

He recently co-authored a study titled “Am I a leader? Examining leader identity development over time,” which was later published in The Leadership Quarterly. In 2010, he was awarded the Walter F. Ulmer Research Award from the Center for Creative Leadership (USA) for outstanding, career-long contributions to applied leadership research.

Additionally, one of Professor Day’s major focus for KLI is developing the Leadership Sequence at CMC.

“Doing the leadership studies sequence is a way of developing a much more sophisticated way of thinking about leadership,” he says. “If you believe the adage from social psychology that thinking is for doing, then you should have a broader repertoire as a result of the sequence and being involved with KLI. Therefore, you have just that many more ways to be effective as a leader, and that’s going to be a career-definer in terms of your potential to be hired.”

On October 5, the CMC community officially welcomed Professor Day during the Installation Ceremony as the Steven L. Eggert ’82 P’15 Professor of Leadership over a luncheon program at the Athenaeum. During the event, he spoke on the topic of “What We Know about Leadership from Science” where he debunked many of the myths and misconceptions about leadership.

He outlined ten common myths:
1.       Leadership is an art, not a skill

2.       Leadership is an exclusive human endeavor

3.       Leadership is based on a formal position or authority

4.       Leadership does not matter for performance

5.       Great Leaders are born not made

6.       Men are better leaders than women

7.       Leadership training is useless

8.       The only real preparation for leadership is leadership experience

9.       Leadership is culturally specific

10.   Leadership is rare and exclusive

Then debunked them:

1.       Leadership is both an art and a science

2.       Leadership is a universal activity demonstrated by humans, animals, and insects

3.       Leadership is a process, not a position

4.       Leadership matters for individuals, teams, and organizations

5.       Leaders are born and made

6.       Men and women have an equal capacity to lead

7.       Leadership is effective across all domains

8.       Experience without theory teaches nothing

9.       There are universally-endorsed leadership attributes and practices

10.   There are leadership skills and attributes distributed across the population

After reversing the perceptions surrounding leadership, Day concluded by proclaiming how “we can change the world with leadership.” Through this statement and the debunked myths above, leadership is shown as a world changing capacity hidden deep inside of us, each equipped with the potential to render maximum impact. Therefore, “even if you can’t be the leader, you need to be a leader,” as stated by Day.