Makarios Consulting Blog

Confronting Reluctant Leader Syndrome

You’re a leader with a leadership gap on your team. Fortunately, you have just the person in mind to fill that seat. The team member you want to promote is a strong individual contributor. He has been managing complex projects and initiatives successfully for several years. His two direct reports think the world of him. You are confident he will be a perfect fit for the role’s larger team and expanded responsibilities. You talk to him about being promoted … and are caught completely flat-footed.

He doesn’t want the promotion.

Really. He not only doesn’t want to fill the empty leadership spot, but he is actively resisting it. He comes up with excuse after excuse, totally baffling you. This is an intelligent, engaged, skilled member of your team; what is going on?

What is going on is Reluctant Leader Syndrome.

Reluctant Leader Syndrome is what we call it when someone does not want to step into a certain leadership role, whether that involves a first-time management role or a promotion to the next leadership level. You believe the person is amply qualified, but they don’t.

After you get past your initial surprise, take the following steps to help the person loosen the grip of Reluctant Leader Syndrome:

1. Discover the reason for the reluctance.

Clear a space on your calendar and sit down with the person to have a conversation. You want them to do the talking, so be prepared to ask open-ended questions and listen carefully. Do not pass judgment on anything they might say. Do not at that moment try to convince them to change their mind. Just listen.

A person might push back on being promoted because of health problems, family concerns, or some other matter that is perfectly valid and which might necessitate giving up the idea of promoting them. However, in our experience, the most common cause of Reluctant Leader Syndrome is insecurity. This insecurity can spring from a wide variety of sources; for example, a person might feel insecure because of a past negative experience. They might feel that they lack a necessary skill for the new role. They could be afraid to lead a larger team or handle increased responsibilities. The good news is that insecurity is something you can address, which brings us to the next step.

2. Make a plan to address the insecurity.

Once you have identified the source of the person’s insecurity, you can make a plan to address it. For instance, if the person …

  • Feels inadequate to lead others, provide the opportunity for leadership development coaching.
  • Lacks a key skill or information, supply them with appropriate training or mentoring.
  • Fears taking on multiple new responsibilities all at once, design a transition period so they can absorb responsibilities at a steady pace without becoming overwhelmed.

The plan needs to be developed together to ensure that it appropriately addresses the person’s insecurity and has the person’s full buy-in.

3. Do not rush the process.

As much as you may want (and need) to have the person fill the leadership role immediately, it is imperative that you allow sufficient time to carry out the plan you have made. Insecurity – even when its source has been identified – is not shed overnight. Leadership development, skills acquisition, mentoring, and transitioning all take time.

As you work the plan together and provide your consistent and continued support, you will help the person overcome Reluctant Leader Syndrome and become the leader that you already know they can be.