Having interviewed 26 quietly powerful leaders and reflected on what they told me, what struck me was that some were reluctant leaders.

They never thought of themselves as leaders initially. Someone – a mentor, a manager, a senior leader – saw something in them, encouraged and gave them opportunities to step into leadership.

Here are some comments from these leaders:

“I never really aspired for leadership or to become a CEO.” Angie Paskevicius, CEO and Executive Director at Holly Oak and also a Executive Director of a number of other organizations, an executive coach, and a public speaker, 2015 WA Telstra Business Woman of the Year award winner

“I used to think that you needed to be an extrovert to move up and to be successful. And I think making that presumption was a bit disheartening when you’re younger because you sort of thought, ‘Well, how am I ever going to achieve this where I have to be something that I’m not?’”  Brad Chan, CEO of Banna Property Group and the Founder of Haymarket HQ

“[One of my mentors who was a CEO] said to me, ‘You know you could be the CEO of this firm if you wanted to.’ I looked at him like he was crazy and I said, ‘What?’ I said to him, ‘But that’s not my core skill.’” Ruth Picker, Partner at Ernst & Young, Asia Pacific Risk Management Lead

What makes these leaders powerful are that:

  • They step into leadership roles for a bigger purpose than themselves. They would not have done it unless there was a compelling reason for them to step up. Their interest in the collective – the team, organisation or purpose – is stronger than their self-interest. They tend to demonstrate servant leadership as a result.
  • They do not develop a sense of entitlement or self-importance, they remain humble and don’t get affected by Power Poisoning. They haven’t lost empathy for others, their ability to listen to and show respect to everyone regardless of rank/position. Humble leadership comes naturally to them.
  • They develop their own style of leadership. As they don’t step into leadership roles to impress or to gain power for power’s sake, it is important to them to feel authentic. They work on identifying and nurturing their own style of leadership. Authentic leadership is important to them.
  • They are committed to their own development. They are often reluctant because they know that they are missing some skills, such as public speaking. Because they know, they are committed to developing these skills and often excel in them with practice.
  • They look for opportunities to develop others, as they know how much they have benefited from having mentors and supporters. Some have kept in touch with mentees for decades. They support and develop others not out of a sense of obligation but out of joy of seeing others succeed. They tend to be development focused leaders.

Organisations are overlooking talent right in front of their eyes.

Organisations and leaders often look for ambitious people and those who say they wish to lead as potential leaders. Reluctant leaders – those who may not put themselves forward or promote themselves, those who may not appear confident (see ‘Appearing confident’ is over-rated), those who may even say that they are not interested in leadership roles – even if they are highly capable, are usually taken off the ‘potentials’ list. (see Professor Adam Grant’s interview where he says senior leaders promote the wrong leaders because the more self-centred ‘takers’ tend to be better self-promoters.)

However, reluctant leaders often don’t want the limelight but will step into it if it’s for a meaningful purpose. Some of the leadership issues we are seeing today may be partly a result of overlooking reluctant leaders, the bias towards style against substance and mistakingstrong leadership as dominance.

Another reason why we need quietly powerful leaders now, more than ever, even if they come across as reluctant initially. If we were to find, encourage and develop reluctant leaders to step up for a greater purpose that’s meaningful to them:

  • We could reduce or even eliminate the misuse and abuse of power with more leaders focused on the collective interest rather than themselves.
  • We could reduce the leadership gap and address issues with low customer or employee trust in many organisations.
  • We could make more progress with diversity in leadership as we stop saying that someone is not leader-like or ready due to their reluctant style.
  • We could uncover leadership talent we never thought we had.

What do you think? Do you think we should be spotting, encouraging and supporting reluctant leaders?

Related articles

Quietly Powerful Leaders – who are they and why we don’t have enough of them

The definition of what good leadership looks like needs an update

Do you have to be an extrovert to get ahead?

I don’t want to be a leader

The dangers of leaders who appear confident but are not so confident inside