September 8, 2022

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #135 – Are Your High Potentials Afraid to Identify as Leaders?

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Julia Lee Cunningham, Laura Sonday and Sue Ashford’s HBR Article September 5, 2022

According to the authors, many people, including your high potentials, are uncomfortable identifying as leaders. What drives this reluctance? When it comes to leading, self-identity matters. Research has shown that seeing yourself as a leader is an important first step on the path toward becoming one — and reluctance to identify as a leader can keep even the most capable people from taking on leadership responsibilities. So, why are people so often uncomfortable with thinking of themselves as leaders?

While there are no doubt many factors at play, prior research has shown that reputational concerns can play a major role in deterring people from proactively pursuing their goals at work. As such, Cunningham, Sonday and Ashford were interested in whether perceived risk to people’s reputations could similarly impact their sense of identity as leaders, and in turn make them less likely to lead. To explore this question, they conducted a series of studies with more than 1,700 participants including full-time employees, MBA students, and U.S. Airforce cadets, and they consistently found that the more people worried about the reputational risks of being a leader, the less likely they were to identify as one.

Specifically, the authors identified three common reputational fears that hold people back from seeing themselves as leaders:

Fear of Seeming Domineering

Many of the participants in their study expressed concern about being seen as bossy, autocratic, or domineering if they were to take on a leadership role. As one interviewee put it, “I wouldn’t want to seem pushy, or that I take advantage of weak [people]. I wouldn’t want to seem cold.” Interestingly, while much has been written on the use of pejorative words like “bossy” to describe female leaders, they found that in their studies, men and women were both afraid of coming across in this manner.

Fear of Seeming Different

The second common concern was that acting as a leader would result in being singled out and receiving too much attention for being different from others — even if that attention was positive. One participant explained, “I don’t want to be looked up to or idolized. I am comfortable leading, but at the same time I want to be on the same level as everyone else.” Many people worry that if they become leaders, they will have to sacrifice their sense of belonging within the group.

Fear of Seeming Unqualified

Regardless of whether they actually saw themselves as qualified, many of the study participants said that they were afraid that others would view them as unfit for leadership. As one shared, “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.”

To be sure, there are very real experiences that often inform these fears, especially for underrepresented groups such as women and people of color. But whether these fears are justified or not, it’s important to understand their impact on how we view ourselves. And across our studies, we found that people who reported higher levels of fear around these reputational risks were less likely to see themselves as leaders. As a result, they were less likely to act as leaders, and therefore less likely to be seen as leaders by their supervisors.

At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive. Why would perceptions of riskiness influence something as deeply ingrained as your identity? From a psychological standpoint, however, this effect is not surprising at all. No one likes to think of themselves as driven by fear, and leadership can often come with substantial challenges. So, when pursuing leadership feels risky, people subconsciously redefine their own identities to justify avoiding it. It’s a lot more comfortable to rationalize an unwillingness to lead by telling yourself that you’re “just not a leader” than to admit that you’re afraid of what others might think.

The good news is, the research also revealed several psychological interventions managers can use to reduce both the potency and impact of these fears, enabling them to encourage more people to identify as and become leaders. First, their research suggests that it is possible to influence people’s perceptions of reputational risk. In one study, they found that participants who listened to a podcast that framed leadership as risky were less likely to identify or act as leaders than those who listened to a podcast that described leadership as low risk. This suggests that simply by presenting leadership as less risky and lower stakes (for example, by clarifying that leadership mistakes are expected and will not be a black mark on an employee’s record), managers can help employees feel more comfortable seeing themselves as leaders.

In addition, managers can also take steps to explicitly address employees’ reputational concerns. It is understandable that people wouldn’t want to align themselves with an identity that’s stereotypically associated with being domineering, different, or unqualified. Organizations must demonstrate through both words and actions that anyone can be a leader, and that taking on leadership roles will be viewed positively.

Of course, no intervention will be able to eliminate reputational fears completely. But a survey of MBA consulting teams helped the authors identify a strategy that managers can use to limit these fears’ negative impact: They found that when students viewed leadership as an innate ability, perceiving greater reputational risk reduced their self-identity as a leader — but for students who viewed leadership as a skill that could be cultivated, the effect was substantially muted. This is likely because people who view leadership as a learnable skill may feel more comfortable with setbacks, whereas those with a fixed view may assume that any mistakes they make as leaders permanently damage their reputation and indicate that they simply aren’t meant to lead. As such, managers can reduce the impact of reputational concerns on identity by explicitly challenging the idea that leaders are “born not made.” That means providing employees with guidance and opportunities to develop their leadership skills, recognizing their progress in developing these skills (even when the outcome isn’t totally positive), and openly sharing stories of leadership failures along with successes.

As author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer compellingly writes, “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.” 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 as — and acting as — a leader.

Our experiences at Allen Austin fully support the observations of the authors. This article highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to identifying high potential employees and teaching time-tested principles around high-performance leadership. Otherwise reluctant up and comers stand a much better chance of developing into powerful leaders when they understand that a peak performance mindset can be developed and that leadership is influence, nothing more nothing less. Our Vanguard Leadership Dynamics program is designed to teach leaders and managers at every level, from the board room to the shop floor, that delivering an effective leadership message that gets people out of the stands and into the game, that being authentic, and delivering a well-crafted message is far more important than degrees, titles, or other forms of position power. Give us a shout and let’s have a conversation around optimizing your high potential leaders.


Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory