Do you know someone who is very comfortable doing a job that has no leadership dimension, even though you just know they will thrive as
a leader? Many of them have a condition
that is sometimes referred to as Altitude
Sickness. This is not the medical condition,
which occurs when you are at high altitudes
and cannot get enough oxygen. This Altitude
Sickness refers to the fear of success, the fear
of reaching great heights.
Jesika leads a department of engineers at
a design and manufacturing company. Two
years ago, she realized that her organiza-
tion was growing too large for its current
structure. To keep a workable supervisor to
employee ratio, she needed to split the biggest
section into two. This left her with a supervi-
sor position to fill. She sat back in her chair
and thought about which of her employees
might be candidates for the new position.
The water-cooler favorite was Donald, who,
for years, has been lobbying for a move into
management. But, Donald was not well liked
by his coworkers. He was not good at working
together with his team. On more than one
occasion, he mentioned that if he were super-
visor, people would do what he said. When
rumors of an organization change started circu-
lating, the thought of Donald being in a super-
visory role was negatively impacting morale.
No other employees had expressed interest
in moving into supervision. Jesika remembered
that when she first became a supervisor, she did
not want the job. She reluctantly took the job
after her boss convinced her that often, reluc-
tant leaders are the best leaders. They lead from
a desire to serve, not a desire for power.
The following are five signs to identify
1. PEERS SEEK THEIR COUNSEL
Most organizations have two kinds of leaders:
People with leader in their title and people
who are sought out for advice by their peers.
When looking for reluctant leaders, observe
your teams. Who do the team members
respect? Who do they go to before bringing
problems to the attention to management?
2. THEY ARE FOCUSED ON TEAM SUCCESS,
NOT INDIVIDUAL GLORY
Some employees are too busy focusing on
their tasks to help others with theirs. Others
realize that if one employee is stuck, it hurts
the team, and they are willing to either help
the other employee or direct them to someone
who can. The latter are potential leaders.
Some employees take as much individual
credit for the work of the team as they can.
Other employees are selfless and focus on
the achievements of the group. The latter are
And, when thing go wrong as they sometimes do, some employees are never at fault
and are quick to blame others. Other employees focus on fixing the problem and correcting the root cause. The latter are potential
3. THEY ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT THE WORK
Which employees have a passion for the
work? They should take pride in a job well
done and see their work as a reflection of
their character. They sometimes stay late
when in the middle of a key project, not to
impress but because they are caught up and
lose track of time. That passion and dedication inspires others.
4. THEY EXERCISE GOOD JUDGMENT
One of the key characteristics of a great leader is judgment. A sign of good judgment is
when an employee seeks help. When they are
stuck, do they immediately get help? Do they
spend a little time and effort on the problem,
but when they see it will impact the schedule,
then reach out for help? Or do they never ask
for help and then when the task is due, blame
the late delivery on the problem they couldn’t
solve? The first and last examples are not yet
ready for leadership.
5. THEY ARE LIFE-LONG LEARNERS
An employee who is a life-long learner is
potentially a good leader. They realize that
they don’t know it all. They are more likely to
listen and fairly evaluate the inputs of others.
This promotes innovation and encourages
employees to speak up if they feel something
is heading in the wrong direction, leading to
happier teams and better quality decisions.
Employees who feel that they do not have
anything new to learn and don’t fairly assess
contrary inputs are at risk for stagnation and
ignoring the warning signs of trouble.
In thinking of all the people in her department, Matt stood out. Matt was quiet, very
technically competent and respected by his
peers. On more than one occasion, Matt said
he had no desire to become part of management. Jesika ran Matt through the criteria for
reluctant leaders and he met them all; she felt
he was just suffering from a touch of altitude
Jesika met with Matt and had a heart-to-
heart discussion. She gave him specific exam-
ples of how he had all the characteristics of a
reluctant leader. She also shared that she also
had suffered from altitude sickness. She under-
stood his reluctance. She asked him to take a
day and consider accepting this challenge.
Matt slept on it, and the next day agreed to
become a supervisor. Jesika promised to men-
tor him and provide him with the training and
resources he needed to be successful. Fast for-
ward to today: Matt is a well-respected leader
and has not let the power go to his head.
Sometimes, the best leaders are the reluc-
tant leaders. When assessing your teams, look
for the quiet, unambitious employees who
demonstrate the qualities of reluctant leaders
and help cure them of their altitude sickness.
Walt Grassl is a speaker, author of “Stand Up
and Speak Up,” and host of the Internet radio
show, “Stand Up and Speak Up.” For more
information on bringing Walt Grassl to your
next event, please visit WaltGrassl.com.
34 OCTOBER 2014 ALNmag.com
The cure for altitude sickness
MANAGEMENT | Walt Grassl
Are you a reluctant leader?