The HR Juggler

The Reluctant Leader

Posted on: September 1, 2011

Are  you a leader? Do you feel like one? Do you always feel like being one? Does anyone?
It’s my suspicion that many of the people that we consider to be leaders don’t necessarily perceive themselves the same way. Seeing ourselves as others see us is perhaps the biggest challenge of all, whether at work, at home or amongst friends…we all have the power to influence, to inspire and to initiate action. We are all leaders in some capacity or context.
In the workplace, I see many reluctant leaders…people who have been promoted on the strength of their technical and operational abilities, who at times struggle to be the leader that they believe their team or colleagues expect…to be the expert communicator, the approachable manager with the open door who can coach, motivate and guide individuals to where they need to be. Perhaps in truth, there is a little of the reluctant leader in all of us.
Being a reluctant leader is fine…chances are you are just as good a leader (if not a better one!) as the individual next to you who exalts in their authority and status. Having the self-awareness to understand the shadows we cast as leaders is vital to become the best that we can be.
What do you think?

15 Responses to "The Reluctant Leader"

It’s a scary thing to be a leader to some people. It is important to remain confident and stay organized it makes life easier.

Very true – thanks for stopping by to comment.

Nice article again Ali. I always used to be a reluctant leader when I was younger. With age, experience and self belief I believe I have become a good leader at work. It is so often the little things that matter – take a genuine interest in your staff, don’t chop and change their jobs arbitrarily and remember the things that annoyed you as a worker and try not to repeat those errors to others!

Many are uncomfortable in the role of leader, I make you right. People skills is an art form and motivation is very individual. The sooner we treat people as individuals and not just numbers the better 🙂

Lovely to have you commenting on here :). Interesting how these aspects translate across all manner of organisations and types of role. Food for thought and further discussion, for sure.


Great post! Absolutely great post.

Had to put together support (e.g. exec coaching, etc) for a lot high performers that were “Reluctant Leaders”.

Thank you! Sounds like you had a tough challenge on your hands. Hope it went well.

Hi Alison – thought provoking post. I think the most powerful point you make is “seeing ourselves as others see us”. Its very difficult to do this without taking a conscious effort to do so which is why many dont.

As i progressed in my career, i constantly reminded myself how it felt, as a fresh Grad or with only a few years experience, to be in the company of more senior or experienced colleagues. I remember being easily intimidated, even if they had no intention of being so.

Consequently, i go out of my way to remember that influence, and to make someone, no matter how inexperienced, to feel like a peer, a fellow adult. Its a key ingredient to bringing out the best in people.

Nice post, thanks for sharing!

Thanks so much for commenting. It’s a peculiarity of blogging that sometimes the posts that seem least formed or convincing at the time of writing them can strike a resonance with others, whose comments in turn get you thinking further. That’s the best bit about blogging, right? :).

I really like the point you make about forgetting what it’s like to be a fresh grad just starting out. I know logically that I’m now at the same sort of level as the very senior HR bosses I had when I was starting out…but it still seems strange thinking of it like that. It’s good to be reminded, not least because I remember watching them like a hawk in order to learn. And also, as you say, feeling in awe of their greater experience.

Thanks for commenting and adding to my thoughts around this 🙂

Two comments for the price of one:

There is a fine line between humility and cowardice.

I had to sleep on this, twice. It was a relief to realise that it is not just me that is guilty of a disconnect between how others perceive me and how I perceive myself. Reading this comment back before posting it, first it is too long (again!), second I need to be clear, the lack of self belief I describe here is not humility. It is a scandalous and unacceptable waste, of which I am partly cured, at least at work, as a result of the experience I describe here.

Earlier this year, I relearned the difference between knowledge and realisation with respect to how others perceive me, I also relearned the difference between shock and surprise. I was moving from one role to another. I was of the opinion that I was utterly useless at what I did, and frankly felt a fraud doing it. I had found another job and was a couple of weeks away from starting it in March when this happened. For the record, I did move on, and really enjoy my new role, it is everything I hoped for and pretty much what I have been looking for since 2001 (yes, 2001), I give a hint at why in my second comment.

When I resigned, my boss tried to persuade me to stay and refused to accept my resignation for a couple of weeks. That was nice. It is good to move on on a positive note, bridges in tact.

In mid Feb with a couple of weeks to go, my boss lined me up to meet several members of our board and then two clients to try to persuade me to stay. This went on through an all but back to back sequence of meetings on a tumultuous day. He also waved a pay raise and a large, albeit post dated, cheque at me. I don’t mean a large cardboard cheque like those beloved props of PR people dishing out lottery wins, but one with some quite big numbers on it. This panto started with breakfast in an executive dining room in Canary Wharf at 0800 and carried on, on and off until 1800. Earlier that week, one of my references for the new job had delivered two things, a glowing reference and counter offer to go and work with him instead.

What a big head huh? You would feel great wouldn’t you? Well perhaps I should have, but the day actually ended with me standing with my head in my hands outside Euston station after the last of these meetings. This was a phone call from my boss in which the financial element was added, by that time, a slightly irrelevant cherry on an already rich cake.

I was glad it was raining and dark. 43 year old men aren’t supposed to crack up, especially not in public and most certainly not about something as bizarre as the shocking realisation that you are valued to quite this degree. However, the tears weren’t the result of the onslaught of praise, but the result of an utterly enraged lecture I was giving myself. It appeared that a lot of people believed in me, but with one utterly shameful, arrogant and wasteful exception, me. They were also at the frustration that I had not believed in myself for several, if not wasted years, but certainly a few through which I had failed to realise my potential and most importantly enjoy it all as a result.

The shock did me good but I have to keep reminding myself not to be so cowardly (worse than reluctant) in future.

PS Thanks to Alison for allowing such a long comment 🙂

Wow. Honestly Tony, I’m hugely priviliged that you have taken the time to comment on this, and in such a personal way. I think we all have gaps between perception and reality at times – and whilst you were kicking yourself for the lack of self-belief, chances are your old company may have been berating themselves for not making you feel more valued along the way. Poweful lessons indeed.

On a more cheery and slightly less self indulgent note, much more briefly and in keeping with how one should comment on someone’s thought provoking blog … Alison’s question also made me think about how we have to have the courage to lead the leaders.

Partly as a result of the experience I described in my previous and scandalously autobiographical comment, when I started my new role, I decided to just go for it.

I work in an acquisitive start up in an established global organisation, it’s great. We have an excellent leadership team. I have more faith in them than any I have worked for in over ten years. It is fast moving and the organisation needs to evolve quickly, so quickly that gaps emerge all the time. We can’t always wait for actual re organisations, recruitment, assignment of responsibility and decisions before we take action. To put it another way, in some matters there is no “they”, there’s just us. We can’t wait for the leaders to lead us, we have to take responsibility and lead them.

Tomorrow, I get on a plane to meet the lovely people of Minneapolis. I will meet many of our Project Managers while I am there. There is no one person in charge of Project Management, we all do it differently, use different processes, tools, vocabularies and definitions. These are just symptoms though. The impact is that we are doing the things in the wrong order and deploying resource inefficiently.

None of these people work for me, I am not even a Project Manager, we are spread across five cities and no one has even officially asked us to solve this problem. Its time to find out whether my self indulgent silliness outside Euston in Feb was worthwhile 🙂

I love the point you make that “in some matters there is no “they” there’s just us” – real accountability and immediacy.

For the record, I value both of your comments enormously and am hugely appreciative of the time you’ve taken to comment. I find neither of them scandalous nor self-indulgent, simply an insightful and searingly honest account of what must have been a painful realisation. More power to you and your impressive blog-menting 😉

I think to lead anyone or anything is hard. Some people who think they are good at it are in fact terrible but believe they are good and wont take the feedback that they are becomeing a detroment.
I think it depends on the envrioment you work in and the team you have as much as your management style.
The more self aware you are the easier it can be to manage your team 🙂

Alison, another thought provoking blog. Reading through this, whilst I’m thinking of managers that I have worked with the biggest memory this stirs up is that of my mum and dad. In particular the impact a few short words said to a young child can have on their opinions and behaviour around a certain topic. When I was young I remember my dad telling me to look after number one as nobody else is going to. Whilst this can be read as very selfish, I took it quite literally at the age of 9 and always made sure that I depended upon myself, not wanting to ask for help and ensuring I was able to support myself always, because who else was going to. I was having a chat with my dad on father’s day just gone and we were talking about me growing up. I recalled this to him, and he was rather shocked that I had take it so to heart. He meant for me to use it as becoming an independent woman, but also meant that I would ensure I could support myself but not that I therefore didn’t rely upon others within my family, friends or colleagues. This was a complete paradigm shift for me after almost 20 years of having a strong independent streak that I believe I would take too far when not asking for support or help. I would want to make sure that parents, when spouting off words of wisdom, which all do usually far too often, take time to explain in more detail what you mean.

The second point is around the office and the need to understand that we are all human, we have emotions and we have good and bad days, just because you might be a bit short or not give as much time to your team one day won’t make you bad leader. Don’t be hard on yourself and just try a bit harder another day. I have yet to see a team member not forgive and move on to a better working relationship if they have been ignored or felt that the direction was not clear.

Leading is what we are, all of us in some capacity lead family, friends or colleagues. So do take this role seriously and be good by doing good.

Leadership can be a scary thing. Pretty overwhelming to have such huge weight lay on your shoulders. I’ve seen this reluctance in some of my employees who seem to have a great potential. Then again, all they need is a little push!

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