The Reluctant Leader

When the editor of Gary’s school newspaper graduated, Gary became the editor because there was no one else who knew as much as him about running the paper. When no one volunteered to lead a committee at Cindy’s workplace, the silence was too much and Cindy decided to do it. When my Toastmasters Club was down to three attending members, I knew the club would fold if I didn’t to step in as President. The people in these three scenarios all have something in common, we’re all reluctant leaders. Whereas some feel an internal imperative to fill leadership roles, other people tend to fill these positions because they recognize a need external to themselves. These latter people are reluctant leaders.

The reluctant leader often feels most comfortable subsumed by the mission of an organization. Consequently, this mission often trumps personal ambition. When I was part of the student government at Los Angeles Valley College, I had the opportunity to fill the spot of the school’s Vice President. The only problem was that I would have had to step down from the position I occupied at the time, leaving that job’s responsibilities to a person who would only be appointed at a later date. For two weeks, I was in line to take the Vice President’s job, but the day of my interview I made my decision – though I was shoe-in to be VP, I stepped aside and let the other (qualified) candidate take the job. People have since asked me why I did it and I’ve always given them the same simple answer: I could not allow the tasks of my other position to go undone – many people depended on my administrative duties and I felt that it would be irresponsible to them and to the organization to allow this to happen. For the reluctant leader, the function is more important then the title – if I could have served as Vice President without hindering the organization, I would have, but it couldn’t be done so I gave up the title in order to continue with the less glamorous function. The reluctant leader is okay with being a cog in a machine.

Like our examples in the beginning, we can see that reluctant leaders typically do not take on top leadership roles upon entering an organization. They join a club as a member or get a job where leadership isn’t the main focus, yet eventually they drift towards the top. After seeing this happen to me several times, I’ve realized that it isn’t an accident. There is a point where the needs of the organization overcome the reluctance to take a central role.

Since the reluctant leader has “been there, and done that,” a rapport with their employees is likely to exist from the beginning. Because reluctant leaders spend so much time in the middle, they bring a working knowledge of the company and a sense of humility with them to the top. While a smart natural leader may ask for advice from underlings before making top-down changes, underlings are more comfortable approaching the reluctant leader with suggestions since that person was recently one of them. The reluctant leader knows how things work and is thus in a unique position to make minor adjustments that can make a big difference. The strength of great natural leaders is a grand vision, and while this can also be a quality of the reluctant leader, a more immediate vision comes with it. Instead of relying on role-vested authority (think of “pulling rank”), the reluctant leader already has his co-workers’ respect, or personally-earned authority*.

Rather than being merely a mouthpiece, the reluctant leader serves as a role-model. When I became the president of my Toastmasters Club, I felt that every time I spoke I was showing club members and guests why I was the president. It was not necessary for me to be the best speaker in the room, but demonstrating a high level of proficiency was certainly helpful in showing beginners that being a Toastmaster was truly beneficial. Due to the earned respect the reluctant leader is given, it is not very important that the reluctant leader is not always “elected.” In our early examples, neither Gary nor Cindy were elected by their peers, yet if they’d do well, their colleagues would undoubtedly treat them as natural leaders.

So how do we encourage reluctant leaders? Simple, ask and support. Imagine that the reluctant leader is sitting beside the dance floor tapping her foot to the music, you know that she can dance, so why not ask? Once you invite her to the dance floor, support her by cheering her on, or better yet, get on the floor with her! Reluctant means that these people are unlikely to get out in front without recognizing a definite need for their services. That means that it is sometimes necessary for a trusted friend or colleague to nudge them in the right direction. Personally, knowing that I am a reluctant leader allows me to nurture others who appear to have the same qualities. Not everyone has the skills to lead, so those people that do should, no matter how reluctant, develop and use them.

* For more discussion on earned authority versus role-vested authority, see the PVLD Director’s Blog and pages 10-11 of the book Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity.

For more information on developing reluctant leaders, see:

Untapped Potential: In Search of the Reluctant Leader: An article describing the traits of a reluctant leader and how to nurture that leader.

The Story of a Reluctant Leader or How I Led a Small Group of Citizens to a 4-1 School Board Victory: A personal story of Victoria J. Saunders who was forced by circumstances to, as the title says, lead a campaign advocating against budget cuts for a local arts program.

Reluctant Leaders: An article that focuses on how to support the reluctant leader.

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4 Responses to The Reluctant Leader

  1. Hi, Oleg!

    Great piece. I know so many of these reluctant leaders at local community level, and been one, too, more than once. We need more of this type at higher levels, but it’s hard to get someone to go through the hell of political leadership unless they have a big ego investment and desire for it, which counts out the reluctant leaders. Supporting all reluctant leaders gives the other ones a chance to rest, too.

    • Oleg K. says:

      Thanks for reading, Joanne, I always enjoy when you comment on my stuff.

      Leadership is necessary in any organization and while there is some political wrangling necessary at the higher levels (and sometimes the lower levels), with enough support even the most selfless reluctant leader can succeed. The key is to show that the need is great and the organization is worthwhile enough to make the sacrifices good leadership involves.

  2. This is great, Oleg. I learned a lot of terms and enjoyed the examples/metaphors. I know that leadership is not a position, rather, an action. However, a reluctant leader is different (I didn’t know that such a case can be defined or that it exists). I like how you finished off by saying that if a girl is tapping her foot, ask her out to dance, and she’d be hesitant but can be awesome. The last line you wrote, echoes.

    Thanks for sharing!


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