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Reluctant Leaders – the hidden gems

Not everybody who is currently a leader actually wanted to be a leader in the first place, yet it is amazing how many people end up with the role because of some unforeseen chain of events.  Is this you or do you know someone like this?

  • You might have been in the organisation long enough that, by default, it eventually became your turn to lead.
  • You may have been elected to the chairman of the board because no one else wanted the job.
  • You inadvertently became the most senior member of the team after a bunch of senior leaders quit, retired, or moved on to other things. So right there before your own eyes, you became the leader.
  • Or how about this…you never thought that you were actually good enough to be a leader and through one (or other) of the circumstances above, you are now a leader?

Our views on leadership are changing and this is opening up new opportunities for reluctant leaders.  We have traditionally sought leaders by identifying the cleverest and most capable person by virtue of their elite credentials, qualifications and experience at ‘having done that job before’.  Whilst this might have worked well in the past, this style of leadership has its limitations. By constraining ourselves to such criteria, we impede ourselves with the chance of finding the hidden leadership gems.

Leaders that do well these days tend to be more inclusive and facilitative.  Our working environment has become increasingly mobile and subject to change.  We have a desire for innovation, technology and agility. Coupled with the fact that our team members may have more contemporary and higher levels of education, the leader is not always the most knowledgeable person on the team much less the subject matter expert.  In this environment, leaders aren’t necessarily able to apply their power through high status or rank, but rather need to exert their influence by engaging people and leveraging the collective knowledge of their team members.

We have shifted from power over to power with leadership.

A study conducted by Professor Laura Empson at the Cass Business School offers evidence to explain why reluctant leaders paradoxically often make excellent leaders.  In her research, Professor Empson identifies the following strengths possessed by the reluctant leader:

  1. They are consummate professionals. Reluctant leaders enjoy doing the core work of their organisation at very high levels of quality and have gained legitimacy to lead through authenticity and success. They are not distracted by desires to climb the corporate ladder.
  2. They grant autonomy to peers and direct reports.Clever people do not want to be told how to do their jobs.  Reluctant leaders enable capable people to simply get on with their work, whilst ensuring that the team is headed in the right direction and maintaining high standards.
  3. They manage relationships without relying on power. By virtue of their humility and lack of desire to climb the corporate ladder, reluctant leaders are often capable of interacting politically while appearing apolitical. They manage relationships and power with poise and composure as their focus is on getting the job done right rather than maintaining perceptions of success.

Not everyone is a self-promoter, especially those who simply go about their work in a discreet and inconspicuous manner, achieving results without thinking anything more of it.  In fact, reluctant leaders themselves tend to question their own ability and legitimacy when compared to what is stereotypically accepted as ‘good leadership’ when perceived through public eyes.

It can be difficult to spot this untapped leadership potential.  However, as an Executive Coach and organisational performance consultant, I have identified many reluctant leaders using a strengths-based coaching approach.  When it comes to developing people, there is more to be gained by leveraging their existing strengths than on trying to correct their weaknesses, which we so often do.  Our weaknesses are part of us and it may be unrealistic to expect ourselves to fully overcome something that has always been part of us, far less turn it into a strength.  Our strengths are the foundation which we rely upon to help us through challenging times.

The reluctant leader innately possesses many leadership strengths, many are hidden, and many are those are qualities that we do not traditionally associate with successful leaders.  Isn’t it time that we challenge the current stereotypes of what makes a good leader and perhaps look to a different set of criteria that might just reveal the next gem amongst the reluctant leaders?