Reluctant Leaders: How to Identify and Motivate Them

Unsure if you have a reluctant leader on your team? Learn how to identify them and motivate them to be the leader they were born to be.

By Mara Calvello  •   February 1, 2023  •   7 min read

When we think about leaders, we often hear about the natural, ambitious ones with tons of charisma who were born to lead. People who are in the spotlight because they want it—it’s something they sought out.

And while there’s nothing wrong with the natural leader, it’s not the only type of leader a team can have. Some of the best leaders an organization can have are the ones who are hesitant or reluctant to have the term leader attached to them.

What is a reluctant leader?

A reluctant leader is passionate about the organization, their role, and what they want to achieve. Other people likely seek these individuals out because they have a high level of expertise and are easily approachable. 

In short, they can lead but may not see themselves as someone who is a leader and will choose not to lead. They’ll avoid manager-type roles and may steer clear of leading a team on projects or large initiatives. Additionally, this may be someone who is already a leader within the group but who may need more additional support than others.

Why are they reluctant?

There are many reasons a person may be reluctant to lead. For starters, these individuals may not identify as leaders and definitely not as managers. They’re uncomfortable holding a position of power because they’re content with their role and how things are. They may also worry about dipping their toe in the leadership bucket, only to find out they’re not cut out for it—making them a bad leader amongst their team.

Even if others know this individual is an expert within a certain subject matter, they may not see themselves the way others do. They’re likely hesitant and haven’t yet recognized they have what it takes to lead.

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How to identify reluctant leaders

Not sure how to spot a reluctant leader on your team? Here are six habits of reluctant leaders to look out for.

1Shy away from taking initiative

A reluctant leader will likely shy away from taking initiative. In team meetings, these are the people who may not raise their hands to be the first to try a new project, attempt a new strategy, or go with a new plan of action. 

It’s important to note that these people aren’t lazy workers or employees who do less work than others; they simply aren’t the first to try something new. An example would be someone who doesn’t necessarily want to lead the team on a new project but is happy to roll up their sleeves and get started on their own work.

2Stay within their comfort zone

A reluctant leader knows what they’re good at—and they want to stay there. They want to be within their comfort zone regarding their daily tasks and routine at work.

For example, a person who is quiet during meetings or doesn’t prefer public speaking may not be thrilled to hear they’re being asked to film an instructional video with their camera on. This person will choose to lead behind the scenes and stick to things they know they’re already good at. It’s important to remind these individuals that it’s challenging (but necessary) to grow, expand their skill set, or learn something new without branching out.

3Resist change 

Most employees love the idea of a promotion, but a reluctant leader may resist a change in position, title, or role. With a promotion may come more responsibility, which could entail leading the team in new ways. If someone is happy within their role, content with their duties, and within their comfort zone, they will likely resist climbing the corporate ladder at their organization.

They’ll try to stick with what they know: their current role.

4Suffer from imposter syndrome

A reluctant leader may also suffer from imposter syndrome. This is when an employee is constantly plagued with self-doubt, sabotages their own success, undermines their achievements, and has an unrealistic fear that they won’t live up to expectations. They typically doubt their accomplishments or fear being discovered as a fraud or a fake.

As a manager, if you give a reluctant leader who suffers from imposter syndrome a new task that you’re confident they can do, they may express their uncertainty in their own abilities and ask that you give the task to someone else. Managers should keep an eye out for this, especially in women and high achievers within their team.

5Believe being a leader will impact work-life balance

It’s easy to equate being a leader with more work and, in turn, a lack of work-life balance. A reluctant leader may see their work-life balance being negatively impacted by a leadership role.

This person may see other managers on their team or in other departments overloaded with work once they advance to leadership roles. They may look at their manager and see someone whose calendar is always full of meetings with packed agendas, who answers emails or direct messages late into the evening, or who feels like they don’t have the time to do their regular tasks.

Whatever the case may be, someone who has a positive work-life balance and is far from feeling burned out may be reluctant to change things.

6Fear of being blamed 

Finally, individuals may feel reluctant to lead because they fear being blamed. Typically, when things go wrong at work or goals get missed, the “blame” is put on the team leader. If this person already fears failure or is hesitant in their abilities and skills, they will do what they can to not be blamed when things go wrong. 

This is especially true if this person has seen the “blame game” get played within their department. After all, no one wants to be the scapegoat if their team or group misses the mark. 

How to make reluctant leaders ready

Thankfully, it is possible to make a reluctant person ready to lead. If you feel someone has all of the qualities needed to lead, plus the potential, below is what you can try.

  • Create psychological safety: The workplace should be a psychologically safe space, meaning team members should know they can communicate honestly and behave genuinely without fearing their words or actions being used against them. They aren’t scared of there being consequences for being true to who they are. Fostering this safe environment removes the fear and nervousness they could equate with being a leader.
  • Assure them they don’t need to have all the right answers: Take the necessary steps to let them know that leaders aren’t expected to have all the correct answers with a moment’s notice. Removing this pressure and the feelings that come with it could make them ready to lead.
  • Offer guidance: Let the individual know that once they become a leader or a manager, they’re not on their own; you’ll be there to offer help and guidance when they need or ask for it. A leader isn’t expected to never raise their hand and ask for help. Assure them that you and others on the team will be there when they need assistance.
  • Schedule regular check-ins: Take the time to have regular check-ins or schedule one-on-one meetings with this individual. Remind them that these check-ins and conversations are safe spaces to ask questions, seek help, and run ideas by you. Let them know they will feel supported during these check-ins, and assure them these meetings will take place regularly. Plus, use one of Fellow’s 500+ templates to streamline your one-on-one meeting productivity.
  • Share feedback (positive and constructive): You can also make a reluctant leader ready to lead by sharing feedback with them. Make it clear what this team member is doing right and where they can improve. The more insights you can give these types of people, the better.
  • Find low-stakes opportunities for leadership: A great way to ease someone into leading others is to start small with low-stake opportunities, like tackling a project with less visibility. The first leadership task you have this person do shouldn’t be a massive undertaking. If you’re not sure what low-stakes opportunity would be best for them to start with, ask them if they have a preference or if anything has piqued their interest recently. 

It’s okay to be hesitant

Many of the best leaders want nothing to do with leadership. The people who weren’t the first ones to raise their hands with a plan, who didn’t assert themselves over others—this isn’t a weakness. In fact, these are traits that are attributed to great leaders. With a little support from other team members, a reluctant leader may no longer be hesitant.

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