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Understanding and Overcoming a Reluctance to Lead


Why do people with leadership potential sometimes resist opportunities to use it? And can that reluctance be overcome?

A new article in Harvard Business Review offers some answers to these questions, based on interviews, surveys, and field studies. Coauthored by Sue Ashford, the Michael and Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations, and Scott DeRue, the Edward J. Frey Dean, at the Ross School of Business, the article identifies three specific types of risk that deter potential leaders:

  • Interpersonal risk, the fear of damaging relationships with colleagues
  • Image risk, the fear that taking charge might make them look bad
  • Risk of being blamed, the fear that they would be faulted for any group failure 

Both those in formal leadership positions and those thinking of stepping up to lead informally in a group saw these risks, and the more they saw the risks, the less those around them saw them as leaders. 

The article’s authors — who also include Chen Zhang, a Ross PhD graduate now at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, and Jennifer D. Nahrgang of the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business — detail specific, proactive steps that managers can take to overcome these perceived risks, and how organizations can help.

“By recognizing the risks that potential leaders face and managing their perceptions of those risks, organizations can nurture leadership contributions from more people in more places — ultimately supporting both the organizations’ own growth and that of their people,” the authors conclude.

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Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations