Leadership is a rewarding undertaking, but it carries significant risks. Often, high-potential employees, otherwise capable of assuming leadership, perceive these risks as exceeding their tolerance and shy away from leadership. Business coaching can help organizations develop methods to address these perceptions and mitigate risks.

From the perspective of high-potential employees, leadership can be an intimidating proposition. The responsibility, the change in status, and the altering of the well-established social status quo force people out of their comfort zones. Some may not appreciate the inherent power leadership grants enough to leave those comfort zones.

Some people see leadership as a business transaction; if they don’t like its terms, they won’t engage in it.

born leaders

Born leaders know why they want to lead. 

Born leaders see leadership as a chance to positively impact lives and make true differences. Reluctant leaders may not care about these aspects of leadership, yet leadership coaching recognizes that reluctant leaders may sometimes make the best leaders.

The Appeal of Reluctant Leadership

Reluctant leaders have no desire to lead, yet circumstances force them into leadership roles. Once at the helm, some reluctant leaders find themselves more influential and successful than anyone could have predicted. As a leadership coaching professional, I see two main reasons behind the “unexpected” success of reluctant leadership.

  • People sense a reluctance to lead. They know such leaders aren’t looking to accumulate or hoard power. Their leadership is pure, as personal ambition and other forms of negative leadership baggage don’t taint it. Leaders who lead out of necessity only care about being good stewards of people and organizations.
  • Reluctant leaders don’t flex their influence and are inherently followable. Their leadership is organic, genuine, and trustworthy.

Other factors that contribute to the appeal of reluctant leadership are relatability, authenticity, personal charisma, competence, and a non-threatening demeanor that contributes to the creation of psychological safety.

Why People Are Reluctant to Lead

The burden of leadership is complex. Different people may be reluctant to lead for different reasons. I see three types of risks associated with assuming leadership. Here’s what capable people who don’t want to lead often fear.

Interpersonal Risks

When a high-potential employee assumes leadership, the organizational power dynamics change, altering interpersonal relationships. Executive coaching understands the power of interpersonal relationships. So do intelligent, high-potential employees. Paradoxically, becoming a leader may endanger the meaningful, interpersonal relationships executive coaching expects leaders to build, foster, and promote.

Reluctant leaders fear that once they rise above their peers in the organizational hierarchy, they’ll sever their anchors to its social fabric. Not only will they find themselves in a new, challenging situation, but they’ll also be there without any support, facing potential animosity from those they must lead.

Image Risks

Leadership has its ugly sides, and as an employee, leadership candidates may have personal experience with this less-than-savory aspect from the other side of the barricade. They know once they cross that line, they’ll have to embrace leadership’s ugly side. Their former peers may consider them too aggressive or know-it-alls. Their leadership actions may come through as authoritarian and abusive.

The Risk of Blame

Leadership carries extra responsibility. If they assume control and their teams fail, would-be leaders know they may be held personally responsible.

How Organizations Can Mitigate These Risks

From the perspective of business coaching, promoting high-potential employees to leadership positions is desirable. Organizations that can develop future leaders in-house enjoy advantages over competitors. They can simplify scaling and reduce the costs leadership development entails.

leadership development

In-house leadership development is a boon for organizations. 

Here’s what organizations can do to allay the fears and reluctance of high-potential leadership candidates:

  • Offer extra support to risk-sensitive employees. Managers can make extra efforts to involve employees with higher risk sensitivity in leadership-related activities.
  • Managing conflict proactively. Organizations can train managers in conflict resolution and encourage them to step in and stop work-related conflicts from devolving into interpersonal or relationship conflicts.
  • Creating low-risk leadership opportunities. Organizations can create opportunities for high-potential employees to get tastes of leadership in low-risk, low-stakes situations.

Business coaching acknowledges the risky side of leadership. By seeing the real or perceived risks employees face regarding leadership, organizations can develop methods to mitigate these risks and manage the risk perceptions of capable employees.


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