What If You Were Afraid Of Leading?


I recently met a gifted leader in an organization I am working with. She possesses all the skills, knowledge and wisdom to lead her team to extraordinary heights. She is authentic and uses her core values and beliefs to guide all her decisions and actions. She doesn’t let others with different standards impact how she completes her work. She stands up for what she feels is important to her and the organization and stands out because there is a lack of transparency all around her. She takes pride in sharing her culture’s ideology, lessons and delicacies and explains how meaningful her background is to her professional world.

 At this point, you might be shaking your head and feeling like she is already leading. And in a sense she is a leader in her own right. I too thought that as long as she was aligning her professional goals with the growth of this technology company, she was leading. But here is the kicker in her own words:

“I am not interested in becoming a leader at this point in my life. I am not interested in managing or developing others as I have done that in previous jobs. I just want to do my daily work and go home.” 

My initial reaction was one of disappointment and confusion so I probed with some questions to get a better understanding why she felt this way. She explained that she wanted to leave at night with a clear conscience with no follow-up work to do. She only wanted to focus on herself. She made it clear to me that she was choosing to work hard but had no motivation to move to any other level, even if she was highly qualified.

 So what made this reluctant leader so fearful?

Fear of putting in too much time

We all know that time is a precious commodity and is not to be overlooked in any of our decisions. Being able to spend not only quality time with those we love, but also quantity time is essential. Can leaders carve out that balance to make it work? Absolutely. We need to manage time and not let it manage us.


Fear of losing her identity

I think this young woman worries that she will not be able to live up to her most important cultural value of kindness. In some way, she struggles with having to take on a new “persona” if she has more responsibilities. She is holding back and not willing to share her valuable skills and insights. Being kind is part of her personality and will never change as long as she chooses.

 Fear of not performing

This wonderful contributor seems to be concerned that by growing in her job, she will not be able to achieve the best results. She is a perfectionist and doesn’t want to take on tasks that may require higher- level thinking and commitment. She is afraid of being discovered as a strong performer and being approached to do more. Yet I sense she wants to have more authority.

 Fear of nurturing others

The truth is that this outstanding worker is already caring for others when she brings in food from her culture or models better ways to complete the team reports. When she shows others her strategies, she helps her teammates create more professional documents.


Have you ever been fearful or reluctant to lead? How did you overcome your obstacles?

(photo credit)

12 thoughts on “What If You Were Afraid Of Leading?

  1. So interesting! I’ve encountered people in my professional life that also said they had been leaders (formally) in the past and were craving to be individual contributors so they could do the work and leave the managing to someone else. In fact, a few of them asked to be backfilled in their leadership roles. I don’t think it was fear or lack of skill in those cases but choosing to walk away from the stress of management and experience the joy of doing the work they loved.

    Equally interesting was that even as individual contributors, some of them, like your client, could not turn off who they are at their core: carers, nurturers, innovators, people-developers and they did it anyway. They could not help themselves! The difference was that the pressure of “being the leader” was gone.

    I’m curious, did you ask this woman what she fears the most if she were to be promoted? What’s the worst that could happen?

    It’s hard to turn off who you really are to be who you think you want to be. Sounds like your gut is telling you that this woman IS a leader and that’s just not something you can turn off.

    Thanks, Terri for this interesting perspective! Have me thinking!

  2. There are many people who feel this way Terri. You make excellent points that I hope many who do say “I don’t want to be a leader” will take to heart and think about some more. Really a good post. Thank you.

  3. I did ask her, Alli what she was fearful of if she was promoted, and she responded that she wasn’t willing to compromise her personal life right now. My challenge with her is that she wants to make a difference in a bigger way than she can in her present role. She wants to affect policy and that seems to be difficult to do in this organization at the level she is at presently. Maybe my best bet is to have her discover ways she can make changes within her role responsibilities. If she wasn’t so frustrated, I might have a different perspective. Honestly, I think she will eventually step up where she truly will feel more empowered.

    Thanks for getting me to think a little deeper about how I can support her. I knew your suggestions would be so helpful!

  4. I agree Joy that not every person wants to be in management positions and that is ok as long as they are happy where they are. I feel that this individual is not at peace in her present situation as she has so many ideas to make changes. The thing is she might not be able to lead in the way she wants from her present level.I know she will will adjust when she is ready.

    Thanks Joy for your support!

  5. Terri – This is such an interesting post.

    As Alli and Joy stated I’ve met those people too. For years I didn’t understand exactly where they were coming from.

    Now I have a much better idea… For years I emptied myself into companies that were owned by others, or publically traded. I gave more to my job than I did to my husband, my family, my friends or myself. I was extremely out of balance and then discovered multiple situations that increased my commitment to and my passion for Character-Based Leadership.

    To make a long story short, the initial reaction was to over-correct and to limit what I would give.

    Time heals, provides perspective, and eventually someone wiser, softer and stronger emerges. Then skills and healthy boundaries are in balance.

  6. Terri,

    An interesting topic. To a certain degree, we get caught up in the term “leadership.” We are all a leader in our life and work and, in some workplaces, moving beyond being a self-leader requires added bureaucracy and other more painful, distracting elements. At times, it is easier to lead in workplaces by being a good mentor, coach, or support community.

    An interesting discussion point and will interested to see more views, like the ones already above. Thanks!


  7. I so appreciate you sharing your journey, Chery as you are such an incredible leadership role model.

    At different times, we each need to assess whether we have balance in our lives and what we may want to do to correct the inequity. I think this particular woman did exactly what you describe in over-correcting. You seem to have found your “sweet spot” as you continue your amazing expat adventure. It sometimes takes a few adjustments before we figure that out.

    I am a proponent of leading from the place you choose as long as it provides you with excitement and learning.

    Thanks Chery for your wonderful insights!

  8. I agree Jon that we can lead in any way we choose and make a difference from that vantage point.

    As with the woman I spoke of, we sometimes accept roles that seem to provide us with less stress and responsibility, but end up leaving us feeling that we want to make a greater impact.

    I put no labels on leadership and honestly believe we each do lead and contribute in a meaningful way. The most important question is to ask ourselves if we are feeling fulfilled in what we are doing now. If the answer is yes then we are in the perfect place. If the answer is no, then we need to explore a little more.

    Thanks for adding your great comment to the discussion!


  9. Interesting article, Terri! Very cool that you took the time to sit down with her and try to probe her thinking…

    To be truthful, I have been that woman at times in my past. For me, it was selfishness and being me-centric. It is totally hedonistic to think of only yourself and walk through the day without making the effort to invest in others.

    Eventually, I got over the self-indulgence and came to realize it “wasn’t all about me.”

    I do think genuine leaders are those who invest in the world around them….

    Great thoughts here….

  10. It has been a great experience, LaRae, coaching these individuals for the past few months. They have grown so!

    You make such a critical point that leadership is all about investing in others. Maybe that is what is troubling to me that she is so blind to just focusing on herself and not others. I am going to try sharing that with her and maybe she will see things differently. You are so wise!!

    And I could never imagine you being so self-indulgent. You are the most caring and authentic leader today!!

  11. This one is tricky. I would want to really go deeper with her and understand what is really behind her thinking…. it’s likely that there is some kind of fear (you have a fantastic list of possibilties here). It could also be she has some scar tissue. What I hear though, is that she’s is not just “doing her job and going home…” that she’s contributing a lot. Perhaps there are other competing factors at home that create some time constraints.. I’d explore that too.

    I once really, really encouraged a woman who I belived had amazing leadership potential to move into management. She hated it and stepped back. Now I ask a lot more questions before I get too pushy 😉

  12. I keep probing more and more each session Karin and I am learning that she is doing exactly what she wants to and maybe that is just fine. I am beginning to just help her lead from where she is and not encourage a promotion. She is empowering herself to learn to listen more and not feel she has to have her suggestions be the only ones. She is growing so much and I am encouraged with her commitment to her team and to the organization.

    We are each entitled to lead from where we so choose.

    Thanks Karin for your great insights!

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