A common perception among many people is that the best leaders are those who don’t want to lead in the first place. They are content to stay in the background, but circumstances beyond their control thrust them into the spotlight where they have no choice but to lead. This is the reluctant leader concept, and it stands in stark contrast to the view of the ambitious person who seeks leadership from an early age. The former is seen as preferable, while the latter is seen as something to avoid.
But is there truth behind the reluctant leader idea? Just look at Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Steve Jobs. Can we really say that they were reluctant leaders? Lincoln, for example, lost his senate race to Stephen A. Douglas, yet he still sought the presidency a mere two years later despite the perilous political scene of the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ready and willing to stand up and become a leading voice in the fight for civil rights. And Steve Jobs eagerly stood at the forefront of technological innovation. There are many words to describe these leaders, but “reluctant” doesn’t seem like it would fit.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t some truth surrounding the reluctant leader. Perhaps the real story lies somewhere between the two extremes. As author Orrin Woodward put it, “The greatest leaders are reluctant ones who lead because they realize that no one else seems willing to step up.” They may not crave leadership, but they’re willing to do what they must and take up the charge. It’s still a choice they make.
In this article, learn about the reluctant leader, examples of them in history, and how to help others overcome their reluctance to lead.
Origins of the Reluctant Leader
The reluctant leader concept isn’t some new invention. Even thousands of years ago, there are examples of people who reluctantly took on a leadership role they didn’t necessarily want. The Bible features plenty of these examples. One particularly famous reluctant leader is Moses, who when called by God responded by insisting he wasn’t the right person to lead the Children of Israel. Notably, he states that he can’t lead because he has difficulty speaking.
This example and many others of the time serve to teach important lessons and morals to the reader. They include the need for humility and determination to do the right thing even when it is difficult. The reader learns that these traits are desirable in any leader, and they should adopt them as they develop their leadership skills.
That doesn’t mean to say that seeking leadership is inherently bad, but it does set the groundwork for why reluctant leadership is looked upon so fondly.
Another Example of a Reluctant Leader From History
Perhaps few people represent the ideal reluctant leader quite like George Washington. When the United States of America was still a young nation, political leaders at the time knew they needed someone who could unite the people and help the country grow. The man they chose was George Washington, the military leader during the American Revolution.
By all accounts, the presidency was a position Washington did not want. Those around him pushed him to become the nation’s leader. He didn’t campaign for the role, nor did he engage in political maneuvering behind the scenes to secure it. Washington maintained his humility as he was offered the position, even going so far as to think he wasn’t capable of handling it. “About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity,” Washington wrote, “and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York . . . with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
To say Washington was popular would be an understatement. If he had wanted, he could have remained president for the rest of his life. And yet, he willingly gave up the power after two terms, setting a precedent that would hold for almost 150 years. As someone who didn’t seek leadership and surrendered it without conflict, Washington can truly be called a reluctant leader.
From the Bible to more recent American history, there are some great examples of true reluctant leaders that can inspire people. They show the willingness to take on a leadership role even when they may have wanted to do something else. With humility, they rose to the occasion and became effective leaders.
The Dimensions of the Reluctant Leader
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”William Shakespeare
George Washington fits the definition of a reluctant leader in that he answered the call when needed. However, when looking at the concept, it may help to look at reluctance by matters of degrees.
You may come across people who have a low degree of reluctance. That means that they may not have ever considered being a leader before. However, when presented with the opportunity, they embrace it and thrive. Those with a low degree don’t need a lot of convincing—they just need a push in the right direction.
If a person has a medium degree of reluctance, that means they won’t take on a leadership role for just any reason or at any moment. Instead, they’re inspired to step up by special or significant circumstances. They seize the moment even if they feel overwhelmed and outmatched. They may even surprise themselves with what they have done.
Those with a high degree of reluctance want nothing to do with leadership at all. No amount of convincing will get them to budge. Not only that, but they’ll actively avoid leadership positions at all costs, preferring to remain unassuming. These aren’t bad people—they just prefer to be followers rather than leaders.
It’s from these first two categories that the potential for great leadership lives. But that doesn’t mean they will automatically become leaders. There are still two areas that will define whether a reluctant leader will thrive or fail.
When looking at a leader, try asking the question, “What is their driving motivation to take on leadership?” If the answer is that they hope to receive praise, prestige, fame, or money, then they’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. However, if the answer is to serve others and make the world better, that’s much different.
Sometimes, people attach the label of “reluctant leader” to those who don’t want to be a leader but still take on the role. These are the people who are more concerned with servant leadership, but they’re still leaders. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa. There was nothing selfish about their motivations, and their service did much to ease the suffering of others.
The intent of a potential leader matters as well. A reluctant leader may be hesitant to step up, but they still do it in the end. Can someone who refuses to do so truly be called a leader at all? Their actions must be intentional. Even George Washington, in all his reluctance, took deliberate steps to assume a leadership role.
It all starts with how you identify yourself. Research has shown that in order to become a leader, you need to see yourself as one first. Without that level of self-belief, even if it’s only a small amount, you’ll never be able to rise to the occasion.
- There are varying degrees of reluctance people have when it comes to leadership.
- People with a low or medium degree of reluctance have great potential to become effective leaders.
- Those with a high degree of reluctance likely won’t ever accept a leadership position.
- The motivations for accepting leadership matter.
- All leaders must be intentional in becoming a leader in the first place.
What Keeps People From Becoming Leaders?
It’s not like there aren’t capable leaders out there—the problem is so many people are reluctant to lead. Harvard Business Review conducted a series of studies to determine what the underlying reasons for avoiding leadership were. These along with other findings from researchers have narrowed down why some people tend to shy away from becoming leaders.
- Interpersonal Risk: HBR identified this as the topmost concern people have. People tend to fear what assuming leadership will do to the relationships they have with others. They worry that it will affect friendships negatively or sour professional ties.
- Image Risk: Another worry people have deals with how others will think of them as a leader. They indicate that they’re concerned with appearing too pushy, aggressive, or bossy.
- Blame Risk: Another key fear is the concern over receiving blame if something goes wrong. They generally fear accepting a greater responsibility if failure is an option.
- Fear of Qualifications: People may also worry that they’re not qualified to take on the position. This might be a result of the Peter Principle, which states that workers will continue to receive promotions until they reach a position that they can’t do well. Some employees may fear that the next position they take—a leadership one—could be what proves their incompetence.
How to Deal With Reluctant Leader Syndrome
You likely have reluctant leaders in your organization right now. Getting them to take leadership positions isn’t as simple as asking them. The following are several tips that you can use to help them get over their reluctance, and should be part of any leadership development program.
- Identify where insecurities are: Many people will have certain insecurities about themselves that prevent them from accepting leadership roles. Work with them to find out what they are. Perhaps they’re worried about leaving their comfort zone or have had bad experiences in the past.
- Create a plan to address insecurities: Identifying insecurities is only the first step. You then need to work with people to overcome them. Sit down and write out a plan to address these problems. Help them overcome any fears or concerns they may have. Understand that becoming a leader is a process, and they’re not expected to get everything right the first time.
- Encourage leadership at all levels: When people think of leaders, they may think of those who work at the top of an organization. However, people at every level can become a leader. Encourage people to develop their skills even if they don’t have a leadership title. Create an environment where everyone can step up and speak out. This will help prepare them for when they take on a more direct managerial-type role.
- Teach that leadership is a skill: Another issue is the perception that leadership is just something that comes naturally. But leaders are made, not born, and people need to understand it’s a skill they can develop over time. While some may have natural inclinations toward leadership characteristics, the most important skills are within reach of everyone.
- Provide support for prospective leaders: Someone may be reluctant to become a leader because they’re worried about being left high and dry. Make sure to support them in their leadership efforts. Give them the resources they need to receive and back up their decisions when appropriate.
- Show positive examples: It may be easier to lead if people have examples they can look up to. As they see how others have stepped up to become leaders and overcome challenges, they’ll feel empowered to improve themselves. These can be famous examples or people close to them.
You Should Want to Be a Leader—A Servant Leader
Some people may view wanting to become a leader as a selfish pursuit. In truth, there’s nothing wrong about seeking leadership, provided you’re doing it for the right reasons. Nor is there anything wrong about being a reluctant leader. A reluctance to lead isn’t a weakness, but it can prevent people from reaching their full potential.
This reluctance can stem from humility, which can be a good trait for a leader to possess. If leadership is approached as an opportunity for service, that humility can aid a leader. Servant leadership is where many of the reasons for reluctance can go away. With that view, it’s no longer about the position—it’s about helping others.
Learn how to become a servant leader by reading the following article:
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- “Abraham Lincoln – Early Political Career.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abraham-Lincoln.
- Stothers, Danelle. The Ten: Reluctant Leaders of the Bible. 29 July 2022, https://record.adventistchurch.com/2022/07/29/the-ten-reluctant-leaders-of-the-bible/.
- EXODUS CHAPTER 4 KJV. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Exodus-Chapter-4/.
- “George Washington: The Reluctant President.” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 Feb. 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/george-washington-the-reluctant-president-49492/.
- Zhang, Chen. “Why Capable People Are Reluctant to Lead.” Harvard Business Review, 17 Dec. 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/12/why-capable-people-are-reluctant-to-lead.
- Zhang, Chen. “The Risky Side of Leadership: Conceptualizing Risk Perceptions in Informal Leadership and Investigating the Effects of Their Over-Time Changes in Teams.” INFORMS PubsOnline, 28 May 2020, https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2019.1350.
- “Council Post: How To Identify And Prepare Leaders Who Are Reluctant.” Forbes, 22 June 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/06/22/how-to-identify-and-prepare-leaders-who-are-reluctant/.