The phrase “reluctant leader” is used often enough to be worth exploring. Is it possible for someone to be a leader without wanting to lead? Perhaps, so long as, when the person nevertheless emerges as a natural leader, s/he is willing to assume the responsibilities leadership entails. Such a passive taking of leadership will not always work, but a leader’s apparently effortless emergence can be very powerful once that leader begins to lead. This article will examine how this occurs.
The Inevitable Leader
There are two primary ways in which a person may become a leader without actively seeking to do so. The first involves simply acting in a way that, regardless of intention, attracts others to follow. This may involve hard work, or it may simply be a matter of the person’s charisma attracting others. For example, on a construction site, a person who seems to both enjoy the work and do it well is likely to attract others on the site to follow his/her lead – whether to try to find their own enjoyment in the work, or simply because they want to do their job better. In any event, the attraction of others who want to follow brings this person to an important moment, in which s/he must choose whether to accept that s/he inspires others and work to encourage them in following his/her lead, or to simply continue as s/he has. There is no shame in choosing the latter, of course; if a person chooses not to lead, it is a legitimate choice. Even so, accepting the role of a leader often comes as naturally as the actions that allow the person to have the choice in the first place, and many leaders emerge in just this way.
The second way is related to the first, but is less passive. In some situations, a person may simply understand a task or the people working on the task better than others in the situation. For this person, that understanding or information makes the person a candidate to lead in that situation. In any group project, this can happen. For instance, take a group of five working on a research project in school. Every person in the group will likely have a different motivation level, and a different understanding of the material. One person may both understand how the other group members approach the project, and what each may best contribute toward the finished product. If the person chooses to assert him/herself, and the others involve accept that this assertion comes from a position of greater understanding, those others will follow that person’s lead. When the task changes, once others have identified that person as a leader, that perceived role will carry on well beyond the task that first inspired it.
Talking the Walk
Once a leader emerges in this way, s/he must follow through. Leadership ultimately involves more than simply doing what one does best. While for some, it is much easier to talk about how to act than to act in that way, for these leaders it tends to be the opposite. In other words, having emerged because of actions or knowledge, the hard part may well be learning to explain how others can do the same, or to know how to encourage those trying to follow that person’s lead. In Forrest Gump, Forrest had hundreds of people following him as he ran across the country, but he had no idea why he was running, much less what to say to those who joined him. When the moment came for him to speak, he simply said he was tired, and thought he would go home. There is a simple wisdom in this, but it was not delivered in a way anyone was ready to accept.
Again, a person with the ability to lead has no duty to do so. While some may argue that choosing not to lead is a waste of ability, I would counter that a person who does not want to lead does not make a good leader. Here, then, is the most important distinction to make: a reluctant leader is not an unwilling leader. It is simply someone who does not actively seek to lead before attracting others who want to follow. At some point, such a person must decide whether to lead or not, and the choice itself defines whether the person is actually a leader or not.