Are You a Reluctant Leader?

By Walt Grassl

Do you know someone who is very comfortable doing a job that has no leadership dimension, even though you just know they could thrive as a leader? Many of these individuals have a condition sometimes referred to as altitude sickness. This is not the medical condition that occurs when you are at high altitudes and cannot get enough oxygen. This kind of altitude sickness refers to the fear of success, the fear of reaching great heights.

Jesika leads a department of engineers at a design and manufacturing company. Two years ago, she realized her organization was growing too large for its current structure. To keep a workable supervisor-to-employee ratio, she needed to split the biggest section into two. This left her with a supervisor position to fill. She preferred to fill the position from within the existing organization, thus providing career growth paths for her existing employees. She sat back in her chair and thought about which of her employees might be candidates for the new position.

The water-cooler favorite was Donald, who had been lobbying for a move into management for years. But Donald was not well liked by his coworkers. He was not good at collaborating with his team. On more than one occasion, he mentioned that, if he were supervisor, people would do what he said. When rumors of an organization change started circulating, the thought of Donald being in a supervisory role negatively affected morale.

No other employees had expressed interest in moving into supervision. Jesika remembered that, when she first became a supervisor, she did not want the job. She eventually took the job after her boss convinced her that reluctant leaders are often the best leaders. They lead from a desire to serve, not a desire for power.

The following are five ways to identify reluctant leaders:

1) Peers Seek Their Counsel: Most organizations have two kinds of leaders: people with leader in their title and people who are sought out for advice by their peers. When looking for reluctant leaders, observe your teams. Who do the team members respect? Who do they go to before bringing problems to the attention of management?

2) They Are Focused on Team Success, Not Individual Glory: Some employees are too busy focusing on their tasks to help others with theirs. Other employees realize that if one employee is stuck, it hurts the team, and they are willing to either help the others or direct them to someone who can. These are potential leaders. Some employees take as much individual credit for the work of the team as they can. Other employees are selfless and focus on the achievements of the group. These are potential leaders.

And when thing go wrong, as they sometimes do, some employees are quick to blame others. Other employees focus on fixing the problem and correcting the root cause. These are potential leaders.

3) They Are Passionate About the Work: Which employees have a passion for the work? They should take pride in a job well done and see their work as a reflection of their character. They sometimes stay late when in the middle of a key project – not to impress the boss but because they are caught up in the moment and lose track of time. That passion and dedication inspires others. If they constantly have their eye on the clock, they are not leaders.

4) They Exercise Good Judgment: One of the key characteristics of a great leader is judgment. A sign of good judgment is when employees seek help. When they are stuck, do they immediately get help? Do they spend a little time and effort on the problem but then reach out for assistance when they realize it will affect the schedule? Or do they not ask for help and then, when the task is overdue, blame the late delivery on the problem they couldn’t solve? The first and last examples are not yet ready for leadership.

5) They Are Lifelong Learners: Employees who are lifelong learners are potentially good leaders. They realize that they don’t know it all. They are more likely to listen and fairly evaluate the input of others – in particular, their subordinates. This promotes innovation and encourages employees to speak up if they feel something is heading in the wrong direction, leading to happier teams and better quality decisions. Employees who feel they do not have anything new to learn and don’t fairly assess contrary inputs are at risk for stagnation and ignoring the warning signs of trouble.

In thinking of all the people in her department, Matt stood out. Matt was quiet, very technically competent, and respected by his peers. On more than one occasion, Matt said he was happy doing design work and had no desire to become part of management. Jesika ran Matt through the criteria for reluctant leaders, and he met them all; she felt he was just suffering from a touch of altitude sickness.

Jesika met with Matt and had a heart-to-heart discussion. She gave him specific examples of how he had all the characteristics of a reluctant leader. She also shared that she also had suffered from altitude sickness and understood his reluctance. She asked him to take a day and consider accepting this challenge.

Matt slept on it, and the next day he agreed to become a supervisor. Jesika promised to mentor him and provide him with the training and resources he needed to be successful. Fast-forward to today: Matt is a well-respected leader and has not let the power go to his head.

Sometimes the best leaders are the reluctant leaders. When assessing your teams, look for quiet, unassuming employees who demonstrate the qualities of reluctant leaders and help cure them of their altitude sickness.

Walt Grassl is a speaker, the author of Stand Up and Speak Up, and the host of the Internet radio show of the same name. Walt’s accomplishments include success in Toastmasters International speech contests and performing standup comedy at the Hollywood Improv and the Flamingo in Las Vegas. For more information on bringing Walt Grassl to your next event, visit

[From the October/November 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]