Sometimes we spend our whole careers pursuing leadership opportunities. And sometimes, those opportunities are thrust upon us.
What should you do if you are suddenly presented with a leadership opportunity that you didn’t seek, or didn’t really think you wanted?
In my best-selling book "The Leadership Contract," I counsel current and prospective leaders to be definitive in committing to leadership. Leadership is, above all else, a decision. We have to be ready to make it if we have any chance at succeeding.
However, I recognize that there are many people out there that will find themselves in a leadership role purely by happenstance. These are people that were quite happy in their current roles as individual contributors when suddenly, their boss retired and they were asked to step up. Or, they are a top technical expert and their organization demanded they step up to lead a team or a department.
There are also those people that opted for a leadership position based mostly on the lofty title, increased pay and expanded perks, only to find out that they didn’t actually like the work of leading.
No matter how you arrive at it, the reluctant leader is a very weak link in the overall leadership structure of any organization. The reluctant leader can derail an organization’s business plans, erode employee engagement, and spark general dysfunction and stress.
If you are ambivalent about whether to pursue a leadership track, or if you are facing down the possibility that leadership may be foisted upon you, there are three things you need to consider:
- Be self-critical. Really examine your reasons for pursuing a leadership role. Are you blinded by the pay and perks, or do you sincerely crave the opportunity to lead a group of people to greater success? In fact, if you do not feel that making the people you lead more successful is your responsibility, then this isn’t the job for you. Be critical of your own motivations, and be willing to admit that you might be a bad candidate to lead, or that you might be in it for all the wrong reasons.
- Be committed. If you want to succeed at leadership, you need to be all in. Accept the role with the understanding that now, other people will depend on you every day. Realize that leadership is sometimes unfair, and you will often have to accept the responsibility when things don’t work out. Above all else, never lose sight of the fact that your success can only be achieved by making those you are leading successful as well.
- Be willing to stand down. It happens all the time—even those people who have a healthy self-awareness and commitment to the best principles of leadership do not always succeed as leaders. If you are struggling as a leader, you must be willing to admit that it’s not the right job for you. Go to your boss and ask for an assignment that will restore your value to your organization.
I often tell people that some of the best leaders I know started out as reluctant recruits. You may be uncertain or even fearful about the burden of leadership, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve into a truly committed, accountable leader that helps drive success for your organization and the people you lead.
But get ready. Leadership is a decision. Make sure you’re ready to make it.