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Why Your Reluctant Leaders May Be Your Best Leaders

Why Your Reluctant Leaders May Be Your Best Leaders

Megumi Miki (pictured below)  is a leadership and culture specialist and author of the upcoming book Quietly Powerful: How your quiet nature is your hidden leadership strength and  Start Inspiring, Stop Driving: Unlock your team’s potential to outperform and grow. In this guest post, Miki

What’s more common – hearing people complaining about their bosses or praising them for good leadership?

Megumi Miki 4

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of Why so many incompetent men become leaders (and how to fix it) refers to a few studies which show that we still have a significant leadership gap in organisations:

  • A 2011 study by Jazmine Boatman and Richard Wellins, Global Leadership Forecast where only 26 per cent of human resource professionals and other managers rated their current leaders positively and only 18 per cent of future leaders as promising.
  • The HBR article, Talent management: Boards give their companies an ‘F’ indicated that fewer than 20 per cent of boards are confident that their organisations have a grip on their leadership problems.
  • Another HBR article, Do you hate your boss? Refers to a global survey where 70 per cent of employees are not engaged at work and of these employees have anything nice to say about their bosses.

If this is a trend, surely we are missing something in how we identify and develop leadership talent? What may be surprising is that some of the best leaders may not have aspired to take up senior leadership positions.

The 29 Quietly Powerful leaders interviewed for the book, Quietly Powerful, highlighted that many were reluctant leaders and yet have successfully stepped into leadership and made positive impacts. They never thought of themselves as leaders initially. Someone – a mentor, a manager, a senior leader – saw something in them, encouraged and gave them opportunities to step into leadership.

What makes these reluctant leaders powerful are that:

  • They step into leadership roles for a bigger purpose than themselves. They would not have done it unless there was a compelling reason for them to step up. Their interest in the collective – the team, organisation or purpose – is stronger than their self-interest.
  • They do not develop a sense of entitlement or self-importance. They remain humble, empathetic and retain their ability to listen to and show respect to everyone regardless of rank/position.
  • They develop their own style of leadership. As they don’t step into leadership roles to impress or to gain power for power’s sake, it is important to them to feel authentic. They work on identifying and nurturing their own style of leadership.
  • They are committed to their own development. They are often reluctant because they know that they are missing some skills. Because they are aware of their skill gaps, they are committed to developing themselves and often excel in them with practice.
  • They look for opportunities to develop others. As they know how much they have benefited from having mentors and supporters. They support and develop others not out of a sense of obligation but out of joy of seeing others succeed.

Organisations are overlooking talent right in front of their eyes

Organisations and leaders often look for ambitious people and those who say they wish to lead as potential leaders. Reluctant leaders – those who may not put themselves forward or promote themselves, those who may not appear confident, those who may even say that they are not interested in leadership roles even if they are highly capable – are taken off the ‘potentials’ list.

Professor Adam Grant, Wharton organisational psychologist and author of many books including Give and Take, says that senior leaders promote the wrong leaders because they overestimate their ability to judge leadership talent and get fooled by the more self-centred ‘takers’ who tend to be better self-promoters.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, mentioned earlier, says that we mistake over-confidence and self-absorption as charisma and leadership-material. His concern is that “the result is a surplus of incompetent men in charge, and this surplus reduces opportunities for competent people – women and men – while keeping the standards of leadership depressingly low.”

Reluctant leaders often don’t want the limelight but will step into it if it’s for a meaningful purpose. Some of the leadership issues we are seeing today may partly be a result of overlooking these leaders due to the bias towards style against substance, mistaking a confident appearance with competence, or believing that strong leadership = dominance.

If we were to find, encourage and develop reluctant leaders to step up for a greater purpose that’s meaningful to them, we could:

  • Reduce the misuse and abuse of power by appointing more leaders focused on the collective interest rather than themselves.
  • Decrease the leadership gap and address issues with low customer or employee trust in many organisations.
  • Make more progress with diversity in leadership as we stop saying that someone is not leader-like or ready due to the appearance of being reluctant.

We have an opportunity to uncover leadership talent we never thought we had by looking beyond first impressions, style and appearances.



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