Leadership Tips: Are You Afraid to Lead?

A recent study came out that shows the importance of self-identity when it comes to leadership. Seeing yourself as a leader is an important first step on the path toward becoming one, but it’s not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable with thinking of themselves as leaders.

A series of studies by the Academy of Management with more than 1,700 participants including full-time employees, MBA students, and U.S. Airforce cadets found that the more people worried about the reputational risks of being a leader, the less likely they were to identify as one.

Whether charitable or not, sometimes you want an audit when your staff leadership changes, or if you’re a larger organization, you probably will want to have an annual audit conducted. (The Office of Management and Budget requires an audit when a nonprofit spends more than $500,000 in federal funds in a year.) Some financial institutions require an audit for loan covenants.

So what holds people back from seeing themselves as leaders? Basically, three things:

  1. Fear of seeming domineering: study participants didn’t want to be seen as bossy, autocratic, or domineering if they were to take on a leadership role. Interestingly, the study indicated that both men and women were both afraid of coming across in this manner.
  2. Fear of seeming different: acting as a leader might result in being ‘singled out’ and receiving too much attention — even if that attention was positive. Also, many people worry that becoming a leader means they will have to sacrifice their sense of belonging within the group.
  3. Fear of seeming unqualified: some people are afraid that others would view them as unfit for leadership. As one said, “I know people often associate men with leadership roles, so that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I worry that if I try to pursue leadership in my field, people will not take me seriously.”

The study found that people who reported higher levels of fear around these reputational risks were less likely to see themselves as leaders, and as a result, were less likely to act as leaders, and therefore less likely to be seen as leaders by their supervisors.

“Leadership is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows, and everyone leads.”
— Author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer

So how can a prospective leader feel more comfortable with taking on a leadership role? The good news is the research also showed that it’s possible to influence people’s perceptions of reputational risk. One way this might happen is by assuring future leaders that their role is likely less risky than they may perceive for example, by clarifying that leadership mistakes are expected and will not be a black mark on that person’s record.

Second is that leadership is a skill that can be cultivated. If you’re willing to lead, there are many opportunities to enhance those skills by working with your executive director, attending leadership programs, networking and learning from other leaders, or even just by listening to podcasts in your spare time or while driving!

And finally, it’s important that the organization cultivate a culture that supports leaders. Organizations must demonstrate through both words and actions that anyone can be a leader, and that taking on leadership roles will be viewed positively. Establishing a culture that celebrates leadership and makes it truly accessible, regardless of gender, race, age, or other identity, can help everyone feel more comfortable seeing themselves and acting as a leader.