Are people really prepared to lead in business or is there something holding them back?

The Signbox team sat down together to talk about the resistance of so many people in business to step up and own their ideas.

Why are people in business so reluctant to step up and take the helm?

It’s a fact that most people possess an intrinsic desire to be a decision-maker. In all my years’ experience in business, I rarely meet anyone who doesn’t want to be heard. I’ve seen many people with a notion to go forward, engulfed with pride that they’ve become the one with the Big Idea. Inspiring stuff indeed.

Sadly, this is juxtaposed with the number of businesses that are full of capable people who are reluctant to take on the role of leader and simply don’t want to step up and take responsibility. Indeed, a recent survey by CareerBuilder has revealed only 34% of employees who were surveyed actually wanted a job in management.

To add some context, we’re defining a leader as someone who’ll make decisions, take responsibility and voice their opinions on improving processes. Leaders don’t need to be traditional managers or directors for a business to move forward. It leads me to question whether the preconceived ideas of what a manager or director looks like can put people off. The idea that you must be ruthless, a taskmaster and adept at micromanaging your team is thankfully now an outdated view.

The real key to being a successful leader is about being able to unite your team, gaining the respect of its members, empowering them and listening to their ideas. That done, people will flourish naturally.

Let’s first analyse the team environment and then take a look at leadership roles to see if this can affect a person’s desire to push themselves forward.

I believe the individuals you work with, your team members, managers and your overall company culture can affect your desire to lead. Do you have a safe environment where you feel listened to, valued and supported? Are you surrounded by people who give you the confidence to progress and to push you out of your comfort zone?

The fact is that leadership starts within the team. It’s about being accountable and accepting that taking responsibility begins when you join the team. These foundations form the building blocks that empower people to gain the confidence to become our leaders of the future.

If a company has the wrong culture and people are forced to learn the lessons about opinions, egos, fall out and failure the hard way, they’re likely to quickly become disengaged. They’ll learn to hide in the long grass without being accountable as the repercussions for failure are too severe to bear.

It is important to allow people the opportunity to grow slowly if they choose, testing out smaller levels of risk and trying new ideas to help them step out of their comfort zones so they can gain confidence and experience at their own pace. As we know, over-promotion will lead to round pegs in square holes and this is not a formula for success.

I’ve seen many individuals with a huge amount of knowledge and experience who are extremely successful in their own fields fail when they’re promoted to a leadership role. They can do the job of the individual within their team, but they just can’t manage successfully. Yes, it’s important to push individuals out of their comfort zone, but it’s imperative we don’t promote them beyond their own capability in the process. It’s a fine balance.

Fundamentally, leaders need certain qualities to succeed; they need to have great communication skills, patience, empathy and the ability to inspire and unite their team too.

Why aren’t we stepping up?

We often hear stories from managers’ meetings where blame is being passed around and people who should be accountable are not stepping up. Is this because the risks of getting it wrong are too great? Is it a case of ego not allowing people to put their reputation, regardless of how big or small, on the chopping block? Is it a fear of jeopardising ongoing relationships with peers and colleagues? The importance of creating a positive company culture and building supportive teams is evident and this could be the key to unlocking more leaders within our businesses. For people to feel confident enough to except responsibility, put their ideas and necks on the line and lead successfully they have to know they have the support of their colleagues and the company behind them.

Working in a safe environment where you are not afraid to speak your mind with the worry of offending anyone or severe repercussions is imperative. If someone has already pitched an idea and, by speaking out, you could be perceived as dismissing their idea, it is important as a valued member of the team that you feel able to speak out for the sake of the team and the company.

Younger, less experienced team members may not want to come across as the know-it-all, particularly if seniors condescend to their supposed inexperience and dismiss their ideas for fear of discrediting their decades of insight. What would happen if your idea were pursued only to fail?

Maybe you’re simply too entrepreneurial and your ideas seem too leftfield? Let’s face it, most entrepreneurial ideas are leftfield and we should accept that perhaps only one in five will succeed. Consider whether your systems and teams promote entrepreneurial ideas that may fail or do they simply induce your teams to run into the long grass to hide when the idea fails and people are exposed. Have you created a culture where employees in effect throw colleagues under the bus as they know the fallout from failure will lead to serious consequences from higher management?

There are also lessons to be learned when it comes to managing difficult people and conflict within our teams. Most of us have experienced a workplace with a difficult team member and the tension that can bring. Rather than learning to live with the situation, we should learn to change their attitude so they can free the team to progress. Time and again I’ve seen talent restricted because strong characters with big opinions dismiss great ideas and emerging talent with brutal one-liners; in seconds destroying the passion and enthusiasm that can take months to build.

Another reason for holding back could be down to concerns that you can’t achieve a work-life balance if you’re in a senior role – the fear that those long hours in the office will conflict with the needs of a young family at home is very real.

Do you have a director who doesn’t believe in the value of family time or taking annual leave and believes you’re only committed to your job if you’re in the office until 10pm every night? It’s good to see that many companies are embracing change with flexible hours, job shares and working from home. Not only do these progressive companies retain more staff, but their employees are happier, more productive and engaged – and that’s good for everyone.

Building confidence and self-belief is key

I believe the reason why people aren’t putting themselves forward for leadership roles is not because they don’t want to take on the challenge and responsibility, but they simply lack the confidence and self-belief in their own ability.

This is precisely why a positive company culture that values supportive teamwork can be essential in helping individuals build their confidence so they can successfully take that first step towards leadership. There’s nothing wrong with team members lacking confidence or the inclination to speak out or throwing the odd bad idea on the table. It’s OK to speak out about the fact they feel they’re not being counted or that they’re having a bad day and feel ground down.

The questions surrounding reluctance to lead are indeed many and complex; accepting these facts is part of the circular growth we should all aim for. Appreciating wabi sabi and the philosophy that we can never close the circle to achieve perfection, but we can keep learning and growing together is a hugely positive step forward.

‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good’ is a phrase often attributed to Voltaire and echoed by motivational speaker and life coach, Tony Robbins. This is so true; it affirms that sometimes good is enough – we don’t all have to be perfect. Those with egos often expect everyone to be perfect, yet it really doesn’t matter. A team can iron out these imperfections and cover each other. The result: team members who are more likely to develop the confidence to step up and take on leadership roles for all the right reasons.

Want to discuss your experiences or would like advice on developing a company culture that inspires leadership?  Get in touch with us at

Get in touch