…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

Reluctant Leaders (see pt 1) for the post on accidental leadership)

Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on Earth (Burns, 1978).

For all its observation, leadership is still a very slippery concept to grasp and our concepts of leadership are very much based on our own experiences of bumping up against it.  There are lots of reasons why people may be reluctant to see themselves or others as leaders but most of them are rooted in defensive routines and patterns.

As I mentioned in pt 1 of this post, the opportunity to do a PhD about leadership triggered me to reflect on my own leadership and particularly why it has taken me so long to be comfortable with the tag of leader.  I’ve always had a strong sense of duty, I’d always taken responsibility for my own actions and I know others have identified me as a leader so why, I ask myself, have I been so reluctant to name myself a leader?

I have realised that my own opportunities for deep impact learning have mostly occured when I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone.  The reason I have come to this PhD has certainly emanated from a deep sense of disquiet about the leadership and management of the higher education sector in Australia and its effects on the people trying valiantly to support the work of the sector–the teaching, learning and research–with ever increasing workloads and ever decreasing resources.  I’ve had colleagues buckle under the pressure and have been close to buckling myself and probably would have except my energies were diverted into explicating the reasons why this was happening.

So this brings me to list several reasons why people may be reluctant to lead:

1.  It’s not my place / Someone else will step up and do it.

For quite a while I kept expecting someone else to see what I was seeing and step in to fix it.  Why, for example, was it that Australia being an underperforming knowledge nation wasn’t on the front page of the newspapers, why was it not a major election topic, etc??  Surely the correlation between this fact and the diminishing resources for the HE sector and the consequences of this on the wellbeing of staff and students was obvious to everyone?? 

The aha moment for me was the realisation that I was responsible for what I was seeing and it was a ridiculous notion (but common nevertheless) to expect someone else to ride in on a white horse and fix it.

2.  Fear

There are many sources for the fear that cause our reluctance to lead.  Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being imperfect, fear of being ‘found out’ (see imposture below) are just a few.  Seth Godin’s point is timely here…overcoming fear is not a prerequisite of leadership.  “Leaders do not have the absence of fear.  They have decided that the tribe is more important than their fear” (Godin, 2008, p 16).  See also J.K. Rowlings Commencement address to the 2008 Harvard Graduates on the “Fringe Benefits of Failure“.

Most leaders avoid naming their failures due to fear, and fear is a completely understandable motivator. If a leader were to openly acknowledge that he is frequently mistaken, that he is deeply flawed, and that he will continue to miss the mark on occasion, the ramifications could be disastrous. A leader with that much candor could lose the confidence of his staff, his clients could take their business elsewhere, and his board could fire him. At least those are the fears that keep us silent.
But what actually does happen when we overcome this fear and come clean about our personal flaws? What happens when we begin to name our cowardice and admit our inclination to hide? Paradoxically, when we muster the courage to name our fears, we gain greater confidence and far greater trust from others (Allender, 2006, p. 5).

3.  Imposture

Imposture is the fear of being found out as an imposter and is a very common fear for people who lead and perform.  Kets De Vries (2003) explains that this concept under clinical investigation “suggests that it is a characteristic with a range running from a feeling like a fraud to being actively involved in fraudulent activity” (p, 75) and in organizational life it is common to see evidence of “neurotic impostors…those individuals who feel fraudulent and imposturous wihle actually being successful (p. 83). 

When reading Kets de Vries book “Leaders, Fools and Imposters” (2003) I got the distinct impression that ‘normal’ people have a natural tendency towards imposture, but the imposters that can cause us harm–those bent on fraudulent or pathological impulses–don’t trouble themselves with feelings of imposture.  So perhaps the test is if we feel like an imposter then we probably aren’t!!  This book puts some responsibility for the havoc that true imposters cause in society or in organisations back on to the followers who were so willing to believe their deception.

The challenge for all of us is to maintain our capacity for reality testing and not be swept away by emotional forces when the sirens promising instant love, wealth, and happiness beckon and tempt us to give in.  When we are faced with promises or assurances that do not make sense, but nevertheless tempt us to suspend our disbelief, we should listen to the warning sounds and take a long, hard look at them (p 90).

I am interested in your thoughts about this post and your suggestions for other reasons behind a reluctance to lead.  I’ve copied the poll from pt 1 too.


Allender, Dan. 2006. Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths, Waterbrook Press

Godin, S. et al 2006. Tribes Q&A: Inspired by the book Tribes: We need you to lead us.  http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/

Kets de Vries, M. F. R. 2003. The Imposter Syndrome. Leaders, fools and imposters:  essays on the psychology of leadership.  (Rev ed.) New York, iUniverse Inc. pp. 73 – 91.


Comments on: "Accidental and Reluctant Leadership (pt 2)" (2)

  1. I enjoyed reading both the components of your thesis. It made me reflect on my own situation as a leader of an educational institution and I was able to successfully place myself as a reluctant leader.

    There are other dynamics that both types of leaders encounter in developing societies like Paksitan which also influence leadership such as power relations with the Board and your Boss and gender relations which are not as ripe in my society. I hope in your detaild thesis it would be academic interest to study some examples of these themes driven out of your context in your country


    • Thank you for your comments, much appreciated. You are right in identifying some of the many complexities that face leaders everywhere in these current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous(VUCA) times.


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