Helping Reluctant Leaders Discover Their Full Potential

Building blocks to developing future leaders

Investing in future leaders is imperative for any business. Sometimes it includes helping employees to discover their leadership potential and fully embrace it. 

On your team, you may find professionals who can’t wait to become managers and are laser-focused on achieving that goal. Meanwhile, there are other employees who may not want to become leaders at all. You may also have some reluctant leaders. Lack of confidence may be holding back these staff members. Or, they may not see a clear path up for themselves in the organization or even realize that opportunities exist for them to grow and advance.

It’s likely that some of your employees will be very proactive about seeking out leadership development opportunities and asking for your guidance. There also may be a number of high-potential employees who can benefit from you nudging them in the right direction.

How do you do that? By creating a work environment that not only challenges all employees with leadership aspirations to step up, but also gives them the support to do so confidently. Here are five ways to encourage reluctant leaders, in particular, to spread their wings:

1. Talk about what leadership looks like

Certain employees may be reluctant to step forward as managerial candidates because they feel they’re not competitive enough to land a leadership role. Yet research shows that the most valued leadership trait is integrity, followed by qualities such as fairness, empathy and strategic thinking. 

Make sure your team members understand what it takes to succeed as an executive in the company. They may rethink their own potential when they realize they do actually have the qualities needed to climb the leadership ladder. One more thing — lead by example. Be the type of manager you want employees to emulate.

2. Start small

Projects are a great way to let employees stretch their abilities, gain new skills and perhaps most importantly, build confidence. Depending on the nature of the project, the work can also help to raise the employee’s visibility in your department and at the company as a whole.

Give reluctant leaders an assignment with some degree of responsibility and see if they rise to the occasion. If they have potential, this is where they’ll begin to prove themselves. As they succeed, steer them toward increasingly challenging roles.

But be sure to set them up for success. Give nascent leaders clearly defined goals, a fixed time frame for goal completion, and all the support and resources they need to get the job done. That includes letting other employees know that you’ve asked their teammate to lead the project. That can help ensure that an emerging leader’s initial management experience will be a positive one.

3. Give them a coach

Mentoring is an invaluable professional development tool. Your challenge is finding the right person who can help to guide and nurture a reluctant leader. What would that mentor look like? Perhaps someone who was also once hesitant about moving into a management role and can dispel some myths of what leadership is and isn’t?

Emerging leaders don’t need hand-holding, but they do need plenty of constructive feedback and encouragement. A good mentor isn’t a boss or drill sergeant, but rather a coach and motivator who inspires their charge to uncover their potential and take smart risks in their career.

4. Play to their strengths

Don’t force budding leaders, reluctant or not, through a one-size-fits-all training program. Instead, help guide them in a way that accentuates or refines the leadership skills or personality traits they already have.

A leadership candidate should build new abilities, too, not just shore up existing ones. Be sure to provide training that allows the employee to grow current strengths while stretching into new areas, too.

5. Don’t insist on one path

You may think of career progression as a straight line from intern to chief financial officer (CFO), with clearly defined intervals and job titles along the way. But do your employees feel the same way? Sometimes, reluctant leaders are prepared to step up to the challenge but don’t agree with your company’s traditional path.

That is especially true of millennial professionals, who don’t necessarily buy into the idea of “paying one’s dues” the old-fashioned way — moving up the ladder slowly, one rung at a time. Unconventional thinking? Not really. If someone is right for a job, why should they have to wait several years for their shot? If your goal is to encourage millennial and Gen Z team members to assume the mantle of leadership one day, you may have to rethink your firm’s overall approach to hiring and promotions.

Prioritize your company’s needs first

While it would be great if you had the time and resources to invest in every aspiring leader on your team at once, you need to take a strategic approach to professional development and succession planning. Of course, you should try to connect every promising employee with an array of relevant opportunities, but you will need to prioritize the training of some workers.

Before grooming future leaders, take a good look at your current organizational chart. Who could take over for managers nearing retirement age or looking to transition to a different role? Who could take the lead in areas where the business plans to grow? And who will help the firm meet new challenges, like navigating digital disruptions and spearhead projects involving advanced analytics, cloud services, blockchain, cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence and more?

Your company’s reluctant leaders may be the answer to all of those questions. Just be sure to confirm that they are, in fact, reluctant. Their hesitation to pursue managerial roles could be because they simply aren’t interested — not everyone wants to be a leader, after all. But if they do want the chance to step up, then there’s no time to waste in getting these employees on the leadership development track. 

What’s most important is that you ask all of your employees how they’d like to grow their career at your firm. If you don’t, you risk overlooking (and not developing) promising leadership talent on your team. And check in about this regularly: As professionals advance in their careers, their goals often evolve, too. Today’s reluctant leader could be tomorrow’s deeply committed CFO.

About John Wallace: John Wallace is the division director for Robert Half Management Resources, the premier provider of senior-level finance, accounting, and business systems professionals to companies on a project and interim basis. He is a Certified Internal Auditor with a background in auditing, risk management and compliance. Robert Half Management Resources has more than 140 locations worldwide and offers online services at

Categories: Management & Leadership