Leaders Don’t Grow on Trees

I wanted this to be my last Blog post before Christmas and thus for this Blog Post to serve as food for thought during the Christmas period, where I hope you will find some time to recollect your thoughts. Despite the fact that most organisations desperately need people with leadership skills, research constantly shows that most people are reluctant to pursue opportunities to step up and lead. Why is that?

It is fairly common to see people in various businesses choosing not to lea or for managers who when confronted with a challenging situation simply wait for things to happen instead of taking charge. Strong leadership is essential for both organisational and personal growth — so why don’t more people step up when they have the chance? Various research has been done to answer this exact question and what was discovered is that there are three specific types of perceived risks that deter people from stepping up to lead:

Interpersonal Risk: The first concern people are afraid of is that the acts of leadership might hurt their relationships with their colleagues. The fear of leadership harming interpersonal relationships is one of the most consistent themes that emerges from any research.

Image Risk: The second common concern is that leading might make others think badly of them. Despite the fact that both organisations and employees generally claim to admire leadership, people worry that actually engaging in leadership acts might make them look bad in the eyes of their peers.

Risk of Being Blamed: Many people are afraid that if they stepped up to lead, they would be held personally responsible if the group failed. They worry that they would be blamed for the collective failure and that that could cost them a coveted promotion or future leadership opportunities. Fear of being associated with and blamed for failure is a powerful deterrent that keeps people from taking on opportunities to lead.

These three perceived risks are normally consistent among all types of managers and employees and have a real impact on people’s willingness to lead. So what can we do, as Business Leaders, to help people overcome the risks that hold them back from pursuing leadership opportunities? May I try to suggest some proactive steps business leaders can take to mitigate these perceived risks and nurture leadership at all levels.

  1. Go the extra mile to support your more risk-sensitive colleagues. Research suggest that employees who are earlier in their careers, newer to their teams, and/or of lower rank in the organisation’s structure may be particularly sensitive to leadership risks. In addition, research has shown that minority gender or ethnic groups are also likely to be more risk-sensitive in many professional leadership contexts. To encourage these employees to push past the additional challenges they face, managers can proactively reach out to them when opportunities arise, explicitly seek their input in key meetings and projects, and publicly praise their leadership contributions in front of senior colleagues.
  2. Manage conflict — and how people interpret it. Conflict inevitably arises within teams. But we found that people are particularly likely to become discouraged by the perceived risks of leading when working on teams whose disagreements stem from relationship conflict (i.e., conflict due to differences in personality or values), rather than differences of opinion about the tasks or work processes at hand. So when conflicts arise, business leaders should help the group address their specific disagreements and ensure those disagreements remain about the work, instead of letting productive conflict escalate into attacks on people’s personal styles or values. When people see conflict as a search for the best idea rather than a fight between people, they are less likely to shy away from leading those people.
  3. Find low-stakes opportunities for people to try out leadership. As previously outlined research has discovered that people are more risk-averse when major career consequences are at stake. When high stakes are involved people are less willing to take on leadership opportunities.
    To mitigate these risks, business leaders can identify lower-stakes opportunities, such as a routine project with less visibility or an internal exploratory initiative with less-significant consequences, and encourage high-potential individuals to exercise their leadership muscles in these safer environments. This approach also enables people to try out different approaches to leading, reflect on what works for them, see how others react to their leadership efforts and adjust accordingly — without worrying that their career is on the line. Then, as they build confidence and hone their leadership skills, they will be more prepared to take on higher-risk opportunities without fear of failure.

Every business organisation I deal with claims to require more and better leaders within its ranks. However leaders do not grow on trees. We need to acknowledge the risky side of stepping up to lead. By recognising the risks that potential leaders face and managing their perceptions of those risks, organisations can nurture leadership contributions from more people in more places — ultimately supporting both the organisations’ own growth and that of their people. Which leads to another question. Can everyone become a leader? Click HERE to read my reply to this question.

Finally, I wanted to thank you for the immense support and feedback to this Blog, throughout this year. As I write this Blogpost I can see that from when this Blog was launched in February 2020 until now, there are now close to 9,000 views. I am truly humbled by this and I hope that my insights and input has helped you deal with the challenges in your various businesses. Merry Christmas to you and all your loved ones.

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