The Forgotten Leadership Conversation: Reluctant Leaders

If you were from another planet and came to earth to study leadership you'd probably get a fairly warped sense of the types of people who become leaders - you’d find a raft of bold, self promoters who loved the spotlight, and would take any chance to grow their leadership influence. If you thumbed through a selection of popular leadership books you’d find that almost everything is written in a style that assumes that everyone wants to be a leader. If you stopped there, you’d be missing a sizeable but important piece of the leadership puzzle - the reluctant leaders.

Sadly, the reluctant leader is often ignored in the broader leadership conversation. However, they have much to offer our organisations, because those who want leadership most are not always the best (and sometimes worst) suited people for the job.  Unlike leaders who crave the spotlight, reluctant leaders are often collaborative, good listeners, and highly team rather than self focused.

This begs the question, what would cause seemingly well suited candidates to opt out of leadership roles, and how can reluctant leaders be encouraged and supported to take a step forward?

Leadership Myths That Create Reluctant Leaders

Myth 1 - All Work and No Play: There’s no doubt about it. Many of today’s organisational leaders look like the picture of stress - And why wouldn’t they? Through taking on leadership roles they end up working longer hours, and have to do the “hard” stuff like managing people and having “difficult conversations”. Furthermore, it’s a common perception that the rewards rarely match the responsibilities. If the scales seem tipped too far in favour of work at the expense of life, reluctant leaders (particularly millennials) will run a mile.

Myth 2 - Leaders need to be perfect: One of the biggest things that holds people back from taking on leadership roles is that they don’t feel that they have the necessary experience - put another way they “don’t think they are good enough”. In many cases, rather than an actual lack of skill, this belief can be rooted in something different - fear. Reluctant leaders fear disappointing others and believe that the environment that they find themselves will not tolerate less than perfect outcomes. As a result, they decide not to try at all. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, as without trying and failing (or succeeding), they have no evidence to prove or disprove their belief.

Myth 3 - It’s lonely at the top: The image that is created of many leaders is somewhat isolating - The leader is the one at the front of the crowd holding the buck when it stops. In reality, for many leaders to get to where they are now involved intensive work, that was by no means solitary. Great leaders study their craft and have assistance all along the way through role models, mentors, and coaches. Leading is the ultimate team sport.

Busting the Leadership Myths to Bring out the Best in Our Reluctant Leaders

Taking on a leadership needn’t be stressful, demoralising, or isolating if the right supports are in place. If you’re looking to draw out reluctant leaders in your organisation, start by examining the behaviour modelled by your current leadership group:

  • Do they have the the discretion/freedom to compensate for the times that the work/life scales are tipped out of balance (e.g., additional bonus days off)?
  • Do they role model good boundary setting behaviour by clocking out on time?

Next, look at your organisation’s performance culture:

  • Are leaders rewarded appropriately for their efforts (e.g., if higher salary is not a viable option can they take a profit share)?
  • Across the organisation are less than perfect results outright punished or treated as learning opportunities (within reason)? 

Finally, critique your organisation’s support and development infrastructure:

  • Are leaders given the tools (coaching, mentoring, training), and the necessary safe environment in which to develop their confidence and competence?

The world is full of leaders who say they can, but really can’t. Let’s do better at encouraging the ones who say they can’t, but really can.

HR Business Direction can help you identify and develop your organisation’s reluctant leaders.


Alistair Kerr, MPsychOrg; PostGradDip Psych; BPsych

Organisaitonal Development Strategist | Psychologist

07 3890 2066

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