The Reluctant Leader. What To Do If This Is You.


“How did they get that position?” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that query, I’d be a very wealthy man, seriously. This query is in reference to someone who has been thrust into a leadership position, the Reluctant Leader.

Who is the reluctant leader? The individual with very strong functional expertise and based on his or her ability rises through the ranks to a leadership position. The reluctant leader has been succeeding by leveraging his or her knowledge. It’s their bread and butter. But now, they are in this position and the expectation is that they will be proficient leaders and managers. Unfortunately, most aren’t prepared. They lack the necessary skill set either because they haven’t spent the time cultivating leadership skills or their organization hasn’t trained them sufficiently. For the reluctant leader, the greater value has been placed on what they do and not how to effectively lead others.

Unfortunately, the how is much more important as one advances. It’s no longer just about your work. It’s about marshalling the team to turn out great work. It’s no longer just your opinion it’s influencing and aligning others. It’s no longer just about you; it’s about the collective we. Many people don’t put the effort against developing these skills because it is not really their intent to be in a leadership position. But here they are. And they got here because that is the way up within an organization. And moving up means greater financial rewards and status so they reluctantly take on these roles. In today’s corporate structures, most if not all high ranking positions require you to lead and manage a team. One begets the other.

I’ve come realize that very few of today’s leaders possess these skills to the degree needed in order to be effective. And that’s because so much emphasis is placed on functional expertise, meeting (better yet beating) sales quota, product innovation, new business development and the list goes on. It’s been particularly true during the recent economic downturn. Business results are important but not at the expense of leadership and people development. Ineffective leadership results in workplace chaos and disenfranchised employees.

While one can’t necessarily fault the reluctant leader for not being a proficient manager, there are a few things that can be done to turn the tide. First, companies need to better evaluate and demand leadership and management skills. This must be a prerequisite for managing people, especially large groups of people. Second, reluctant leaders must recognize their shortcomings and put the effort into building their managerial muscles or aligning themselves with a strong first lieutenant with excellent leadership and managerial skills. Finally, organizations should also look at their structures in order to allow for advancement based on functional expertise without having to lead and manage others.

If you’re a reluctant leader seek out higher ground to develop your leadership skills and if you work for one, be patient and look for opportunities to help influence how things are done within your team.