Reluctant leader seeing their reflection

Q: What is a reluctant leader?


We have a leadership problem. It is easy to write that, because I know you have run into at least one leader or manager that you didn’t like. One of the things that gets drummed into you from all the books and classes is that all the good and bad in an organization is a result of the leadership. What is always amazing is how many ineffective leaders exist and worse yet, that they are tolerated. 

all the good and bad in an organization is a result of the leadership

The reluctant leader

Let me introduce to you the reluctant leader. This is the person who is passionate about what the organization is doing and what he or she can do to achieve more. People seek them out because of their experience and expertise and because they are part of the team are easily approachable. There is a level of humility that comes from a genuine desire to serve the greater good and that conscience is a critical part of what makes the reluctant leader a potentially great leader.

Why are they reluctant?

Reluctant leaders do not identify themselves as leaders and certainly not managers. They are deliberately choosing to forgo a power position because they are happy with the way things are. We all have had experiences with bad leaders and reluctant ones don’t want to become one of those! Reluctant leaders have many of the qualities, readily established relationships and subject matter expertise that set them up for success. If only they saw themselves as others do.

Reluctant leaders are hesitant because they have yet to recognize that what they have to offer is actually better…
Reluctant leaders are hesitant because they have yet to recognize that what they have to offer is actually better than the alternatives. With the right support, they can transition to a leadership role with authority and make a huge difference to all the people and things about which they already care.

What makes reluctant leaders different?

It is not uncommon the hear people talk about “natural born leaders” as if leadership is not a skill, even though it is! Reluctant leaders need to be shown how they are already a leader in the organization and that a formal role does not have to significantly change all the great things they are doing. Certainly, there are new things they will need to do and fulfilling that responsibility, while potentially challenging is actually executed with more humanity than overly eager leaders. The reason some of the “HR” type tasks are seemingly more difficult to a reluctant leader is because they are highly motivated by their conscience; the team has always come first; they have deep relationships with their people. This is not to say that eager leaders don’t have these things, it is more that these conditions are generally more common for reluctant leaders.

An example of how reluctant leaders often find themselves conflicted
Jan is a recent reluctant leader of a high performing team. She knows all of her team members well and thinks highly of them. They have been in the trenches together and she supports them eagerly. After all, this is one of the reasons Jan decided a management role would be okay.

Jan’s manager gives her the news that the company is going through a resource action and people would need to be selected to be laid off. Jan starts by speaking truth to power and making the case that none of her people are under-performing, performing redundant tasks or in a job family that is no longer valued. Jan’s manager repeats the directive. Jan is left to identify and then communicate that this person, someone she considers a friend, has only weeks left to their employment.

Jan is conflicted because she is compelled to execute on behalf of the company against her better judgment and so, while she would rather not, she understands this is part of running a business.

Motivated by conscience, people and passion

Reluctant leaders are often identified by their position within the group and are selected to fill vacancies where a different motivation would be a less optimal choice. Leadership teams have additional homework to coach reluctant leaders through new and challenging experiences. Left to their own devices, reluctant leaders would step down from the formal organization, remember they didn’t choose it, it was chosen for them.

Next steps: Actions that change everything

  1. If you are a manager of a reluctant leader, listen and acknowledge their concerns so that those topics can become open for ongoing discussion. Find ways to meet them where they are and how they are experiencing their work and roles. Remember those new management conversations are going to be difficult. Don’t dump the hard work on them. Instead, share in the challenge and help them execute confidently.
  2. If you are a reluctant leader, seek out the support you need to be effective. Ideally, seek out your manager. In the absence of formal support, seek out blogs, podcasts and videos that can help. There isn’t a universal recipe on leadership. The whole point is to develop the leader you are.
  3. Identify your up-and-coming leaders early. Leaders that have been coached into a management role often find greater success than ones that get opportunistically promoted without the time to think about what it means.

Three tools for all leaders

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