Got a reluctant leader on your team? Here’s the path to success.

We’re all familiar with the enthusiastic go-getters on our team. Those who are earnestly future-focused, intent on being recognized, rewarded and propelled to new heights through sheer determination and self-confidence. When awarded a promotion or assigned a new project to lead they take it in stride, as if it had been expected all along.  Managing these people comes with its own set of challenges to be sure; however it’s remarkably easy to make them leaders, to bestow them with greater responsibility, because they innately know what to do with it.  Things move quickly, fueled by the confidence and exuberance of these self-assured leaders.

So, what happens when someone you have earmarked as an emerging leader is one who doesn’t wear their ambition on their sleeve? The waters are trickier to navigate when the leadership potential you see is hidden behind a quiet confidence that propels an individual’s strong performance across a variety of situations and challenges.  Time and time again though, we see what a worthwhile process it can be to encourage leadership from those who aren’t the boldest, or the hungriest, yet hold excellence as their measure.  Reluctant leaders are often the ones who have the best relationships with their colleagues.  They stand on solid ground as part of an efficient machine and most often don’t openly aspire to be the one driving the machine.  This groundedness, when coupled with the ability to learn and develop, can morph into the kind of composure and well-rounded attitude that can bring a refreshing addition to your management team.

Here are three areas  to focus on when supporting and managing a reluctant leader:

  • Build Confidence Through Active Trust:  It’s your job as the manager of a reluctant leader to communicate that you know who they are and how they work and that the contributions they have made thus far have brought them to this place where they are recognized as having potential to contribute even more.  While you will offer them resources and opportunities to develop their leadership abilities, be sure that they get the message that you are keenly aware of their strengths. Detail the reasons why you see them as eventual leaders. They need this explicit feedback or else they may wonder exactly how they ended up here. Work with them to take on an attitude of “self-leadership”, setting goals for themselves and getting comfortable with their own authentic leadership-style. Encouraging them to develop and express their natural style in a more open way will resonate with their collaborative instincts.
  • Be Realistic with Expectations and Honest with Guidance:  Chances are that the some of the hesitant leader’s reluctance comes from his or her fear of being vulnerable. It’s a fear that even the most thick-skinned of us can understand.  Your job is to lessen this fear by being as straightforward as possible about your expectations and what the overall goals are for the project/team/position that you’re asking him or her to take on.  You also need to be frank about the places where you expect there to be pushback.  If past experience tells you that an abrupt change to the current flow of work could ruffle feathers with team X, share your insights.   For example, if you know that Brian from Accounting will bristle at the idea of a sudden change in direction for a particular initiative he is involved with, give your reluctant leader a heads up about it. Assure them that they will receive regular feedback from you and that their questions are welcome and encouraged.  Keep them seeing the big picture rather than the potential “dangers” in the details.
  • Use Your Influence to Keep the Office Politics at Bay: If this is an individual who others know and like, their internal support net should be wide and strong.  Still, change and advancement decisions can bring petty jealousies and latent insecurities to the surface.   In the case of promotion of a first-time leader, clearly communicate with the team about what will change, who will do what, and where they should direct their questions. By communicating and demonstrating your confidence in this decision, and in the individual, you lay the ground work for a respectful and cooperative working environment, while complimenting and encouraging your emerging leader. Have a frank discussion with him or her about where their existing relationships may need to adjust or where they can be strengthened and expanded as they move into this new role.

The benefits of developing leadership diversity within your company are not to be ignored. Your quietly confident and highly effective leaders tend to listen as much as they talk, be more contemplative and inclusive in their decisions, and they can provide some of the critical perspective that may not be offered up by more openly assertive leaders.  You can set these talented individuals up for success with your strong endorsement and preparation for the many hills and valleys that are an inevitable part of the leadership journey.