The reluctant leader: Improving operations by encouraging 2nd-tier leadership

How can you help the reluctant leader transition into a willing director of action?

Leaders, in a word, facilitate. When they are effective, they inspire positive action and help improve operations. Yet not all leaders truly wish to lead, even if others insist on following. How can the reluctant leader transition into a willing director of action?

"I don’t like it."
I recall the frustration of a very capable friend of mine. She is one of about ten teachers in an early childhood education center. As her first year of employment passed, she found that others would increasingly come to her for answers. When supervisors were unavailable, peers would seek direction from her.

"I don’t like it. I keep getting forced into it," she said. "I did not sign up for this. Somehow they rely on me."

Her confidence, intelligence, competence and charisma were factors that drew peers to her for help solving problems. Supervisors continually sought her opinion in improving operations. Whether she liked it or not, she was a de facto leader.

Understanding the reluctant leader
Many reluctant leaders make fantastic number two or second-tier leaders. Yet they do not see themselves as necessarily special. Most cannot or will not make the intellectual and actual leap to the leader level.

The reluctant leader may not want to assume power because of the weight of responsibility. There is a fear of treading on the toes of the de jure leader. Certain decisions, the reluctant leader reasons, are not in his or her realm of responsibility. Also, the reluctant leader feels that this new status may upset the relations between peers.

Transforming reluctant leaders
De jure leaders who wish to build a strong base of line-level leadership must be willing to release some power to empower their reluctant leaders and realize the benefits of their contributions. The leader must feel secure enough in their role to allow this.

Along with verbal encouragement and rewards from the top, setting goals is an important part of the process for the reluctant leader. The more hesitant they are, the smaller the goals should be. This grooming process should be tailored to the individual.

Of equal importance is positive reinforcement from peers. Peer acceptance is crucial for the success of a line-level leader. This is why it’s so important for management to display visible and meaningful support for the reluctant leader.

Inevitably someone will say, "You’re not my boss!" And that will be true. Jealousy, sabotage and recriminations may follow. Line-level leadership may have some personal rewards, but it is not necessarily compensated. Therefore, it takes a special person to assist.

And, quite simply, not everyone will want to lead. The drive is not in everyone, no matter their competence. That is a reality that de jure leaders must be willing to accept.

What are the benefits?
As the reluctant line-level leader becomes more confident, the agency improves. This can allow the de jure leader to address other areas of operations that were previously neglected. Small successes by the reluctant leader build confidence. Peers will typically soak up that confidence and follow a competent person willingly.

Nothing is perfect. But when the right reluctant leader makes the transition to line-level leader, operations see positive changes. However, the reluctant leader must be willing to accept the support and encouragement of others. As in my friend’s case, she may not like the role of de facto leader, but she is willing to perform the role.

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