When You Don’t Want to Lead

Episode 116 of the Lead from Anywhere podcast discusses a recent conversation I had with a business founder who did not want to be a leader. I share how a current leader can make sure that they no longer want their leadership role. I then provide some insights into ways to move through the challenge, all while making decisions that are in the best interest of the staff and team.

I Don’t Want to Be a Leader  – Listen Now!

“I Don’t Want to Be the Leader,” he said

I’ve had some really interesting conversations lately, with entrepreneurs and founders of companies, but one has really stuck with me. I was participating in a group of peers, sharing a thought about leadership, when one person said, “What if you don’t want to be a leader, though? What if you just want to manage and make sure the work gets done? That’s really what I want to do.”

This person runs a company with around 50 employees, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s hard to imagine a founder who has grown their business from the ground up, not being a leader. But I took him at his word, and we talked a bit more about why he was saying that. And ultimately, yes, he really doesn’t want to lead; he just wants to manage work.

How Is This Impacting Your Team?

I get it – leading, as you and I know – isn’t for everyone. Leaders can get to a place where they don’t want to lead anymore, or maybe they were put into that role by default and it’s actually not something they want to do. Whatever the reason is, it’s a valid reason. Leadership requires a lot of vulnerability to be a good leader, and it requires a lot of introspection, too. That isn’t for everyone. In this peer group meeting, the more we discussed this, the more I grew to respect this person’s insights.

Now, I usually try to have an open mind, but I must admit, when I heard this business owner say he didn’t want to be a leader, I judged him a bit. But now I have a lot of respect for him. It takes a lot for someone to realize when they’re not good at something that everyone assumes they should be good at. This was the role he was in – the leadership role – but he has realized he isn’t good at it and doesn’t want to do it. And THAT is probably the best thing he could have done for his team!

My first question to him was, “Who is leading your employees now, though? Who is filling that role? The coach and mentor?” He answered that no one was really filling that role at the moment, and that he was concerned about it, but didn’t know what to do about it.

And honestly, at that moment, I didn’t know what to tell him. But I’m sure there are many people in his position who just want to do the work, and not lead his team. I started to really think about what I advice I would give the next person who I encounter, who is in this scenario, and I’ve come up with a few steps.

So You Don’t Want to Be a Leader – Now What?

First, I’d ask the person to make sure that this how he felt. That he really didn’t want to lead. As you and I know, once you know you’re a leader, it’s hard to not lead. I would imagine the same is true for this scenario – once you know you don’t want to be a leader, it’s hard to become one or to continue to be in that role. So step 1 is to really invest some time with yourself and ask if this is true – that you don’t want to be a leader. The biggest thing I’d be on the lookout for here are two things – is it actually burnout and/or do you have a people problem you really don’t want to deal with. If those are the causes, it might just mean you’re avoiding conflict or have a hard time delegating. But if those two things aren’t at the root of this revelation, then yeah, maybe leadership isn’t the right role for you.

Once you get through that, step two is to identify what those who work for you are missing out on by not having a leader. People tend to be happier at work when they have a clear leader, a mentor, and a coach to guide them in things other than getting work done. They will need some level of leadership to keep them happy and engaged, and if you’re not going to provide that, someone else will need to fill that role. Without a leader, your people are likely missing out on career development, conversations about culture, and possibly clarity about why they’re doing the work they do. Those are all really important aspects of leadership your team needs access to, in order to be successful in their roles.

The next step would then be to talk to your people about it. You may not need to talk to everyone; it depends on the size of your team. But you definitely need to talk to them about your role, about how you’re realizing you’re not the leader of the organization, and that you’d like their feedback on if they’re seeing the same thing. It’s also a great place to ask for feedback on what they think they’re missing out on due to the lack of leadership. This will help you build out the list mentioned in the prior step.

The final step here is to determine a solution to address the lack of leadership. It might mean bringing in a new employee or team member. It might mean having an interim person come in and be a kind of chief coaching officer. The best case scenario is when there’s someone on the team already who wants to step into that leadership position. Some people on your team may already consider that person the leader – but you want to make sure that individual wants to be a leader. There are a lot of solutions, but at the end of the day, it will require someone stepping into the leadership role.

If you are in a leadership role, but really don’t want to be, that’s ok. The most important thing is to be aware of your feelings and then to do something about them. Ultimately, you want to protect those on your team – keep their best interests in mind. If you let that guide you, you’ll make the right decisions as you move through the above steps.