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The Reluctant Leader

A couple weeks ago, my best friend and I were discussing leadership. This is a common topic of ours. Even though I was the Marine (and therefore automatically "a leader" in her eyes), I've felt that she was (is) a great leader in her own right. She has never agreed with me (much to my dismay). She self-identifies as a "reluctant leader".


What is a "reluctant leader"? If you ask Google, articles appear that tell you that they have "imposter syndrome" and don't see themselves as leaders. They state reluctant leaders are passionate about their jobs, and are seen as team players with significant expertise. They are humble. But they may have had the experience of that one bad leader (or many bad leaders) and do not want to be that person. These are qualities that make reluctant leaders potentially great leaders.


Most of the articles offer good ideas for how to encourage and support reluctant leaders. I'd like to take things further. Let's take a look at some of our ideas around leadership itself (what I'll label "myths"). I lean heavily on the Marine Corps, as that is my experience. Also, I believe that the Marine Corps does some things well that tend to get overlooked in most leadership conversations.


Myth #1: Leadership is special and only something that senior people in the organization do.


Fact: We are all leaders. And the first person we must lead - before we hope to lead anyone else - is ourselves. The Marine Corps teaches this early and often. The first leadership principle is "Know yourself and seek self-improvement".


Fact: Leadership is everywhere. The Marine Corps normalizes leadership. By this I mean that, if there are two Marines in a room, one of them is in charge. Leadership is something that Marines do every day, in every situation, from their earliest time in the Marine Corps. There is no special moment when one "becomes a leader". Marines begin by leading themselves, then a small team, then a larger team. This continues to grow - dependent on the Marine's capabilities and their time in the service.


Myth #2: Leadership comes naturally and does not require training or practice.


Fact: Leadership benefits tremendously from training. The Marine Corps also starts this early and often. There are 11 leadership principles, 14 leadership traits and 3 core values. Marines have these memorized. (absorbed might be a better word - I remember doing "leadership push-ups" at the end of every physical fitness session in college, which meant shouting each leadership trait while doing a push-up -- for some reason endurance was the favorite trait -- which we proved by repeating for at least three push-ups) We have an entire book on the subject! Leadership literally becomes part of who we are.


Fact: Leadership benefits from practice, and making mistakes. When Marines begin leading others, they are often (hopefully, if they have good leaders) given leeway to try things and to make mistakes.


Myth #3: Leadership is only responsibility (and therefore, lots of work).


Fact: Leadership is responsibility, and work. It also is authority and tremendous opportunity. I love leading. I love it because I have the authority to do my job as I see fit and to take care of my team. I love it because I know when I take care of my people, they can realize their potential, love their jobs and develop, propose and (most importantly) try new ideas that I never would have dreamed of. Leadership principles #3 and #4: Know your Marines (team) and look out for their welfare, and Keep your Marines (team) informed.


The reality that I've seen in (some) business situations is that "leadership" comes with all the responsibility but none of the authority. To me, that's not leadership. If you do not have the authority to be able to take care of your people and do your job, then you do not really have a leadership position. You've got an unenviable task.


So what can a reluctant leader do? What can that leader's leader do?


First, offer/take leadership training. Offer it to a much broader spectrum of individuals than might normally have access to leadership training. Offer it to younger team members, long before they might have a "real" leadership position.


Second, normalize leadership. By offering training to a wider variety of individuals, leadership will become something that is reachable by everyone. You might find team members stepping into leadership roles without having positional authority. This is great! They are self-identifying as future (senior) leaders in your organization.


Third, ensure that all leadership positions come with responsibility and authority. Understand that your leaders will make mistakes. Understand that they must have leeway to take care of their team, to lead their team, as they see fit. In this way, they will automatically claim the responsibility that you want them to feel. Leaders should be able to express pride in their team when they accomplish things, and accept responsibility for mistakes.


Lastly, look to yourself. How well are you leading yourself? How well are you leading your team? When's the last time you invested time in leadership training? Leadership principle #5: Set the example. Be the leader you want to see in your leaders, and then watch them grow.


If you enjoyed this post, please let me know. And as always, if you've got a specific type of leader you'd like to see included, comment below!


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