The Fear of Leadership

Many people have a perception of leaders as prominent and respected figures. But the reality is that anyone can demonstrate leadership qualities regardless of their position.

Why do people feel uncomfortable with the idea of being a leader? Understanding these blockers is crucial to overcoming them and becoming a more confident leader.

Quanta’s Head of People Leadership and Development, Alex Smith, reflects on the concept of leadership.

A few years ago, a guy attended a leadership course I was running, having been nominated to attend by his company. From the outset, it felt clear that he was uncomfortable being there, and would much rather have been somewhere else.

Attempts at starting conversation were rebuffed, one-word answers to questions were given. When watching his interactions with the rest of the group, most of his contributions were heavily laden with sarcasm, to the extent that this started to wear on other members of the group, creating an atmosphere of prickly tension.

This is not unusual. I’ve facilitated plenty of courses and workshops where people have been ‘sent’ by their organisation to attend, and I can understand why some people may feel annoyed by this. It always helps to understand why your employer feels that you would benefit from attending ahead of time – if this isn’t adequately communicated you may feel that being put on a course is criticism of your abilities, which can be demoralising and upsetting.

What happened next was really interesting

Over the course of the week, this guy started to thaw. He became less skeptical and started to engage more constructively with the other members of the team. He started to open up, discuss what he felt he was good at as well as the things he felt he could improve, not just with me, but with other members of the team too. By the time the course finished, he had become an active participant and one of the most positive driving forces in the group.

On the last day, we sat down together, and discussed what everyone felt they had taken away from the experience. I was really interested in what this guy had to say. There hadn’t been an obvious turning point or light bulb moment for him that I could see, rather a gradual progression from his initial ‘standoffishness’ to what was a polar opposite.

I asked him what the week had been like for him

He told me, and the group, that when he was told he was being sent on a leadership course, he was not happy. Everyone he’d ever worked with who had described themselves as leader or had been described by other people as a leader, was basically a dictator. Someone who told people what to do and how to do it, where it was their way or the highway. This was something he hated, so when he was told he was attending a leadership course, his first thought was:

‘I’m going on a course to teach me to behave like THAT’

So, when he turned up, he had no intention of getting stuck in. Why bother when he fundamentally disagreed with this approach to leading people? He didn’t want to go back to work and feel like he was expected to behave in a certain way, one that might make his team feel the way he’d felt when he’d been led like this in the past.

Over the course of the week, he came to realise that he didn’t need to behave in that way to be an effective leader. What mattered most was that he leveraged his strengths, remained mindful of his areas for improvement, and with this awareness, create an environment that empowered his team to perform at their best every day.

In short, he had realised that he could still be a leader and be authentically himself.

Now, I’m not taking credit for this (well, I may have helped a bit). He’d come to this conclusion himself, and as a result felt far more comfortable with the idea of being considered a leader, and far more confident in his ability to lead.

But it got me thinking about a few things

Namely, when we think about leadership, what do we think it is? And are we comfortable with the idea of ourselves as leaders?

Quite often when I ask people this question, they have an image in their minds of a Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Jacinda Ardern, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie and so on. People who have achieved a position of such prominence and respect that they stand atop a pedestal that mere mortals such as us have no chance of reaching.

Pictured Above L to R: Jacinda Ardern, Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama, Martin Luthor King


When I ask people whether being in a position of authority is necessary to be a leader, they often say no. They say that you could be in any position within your organisation and still demonstrate leadership qualities. So, if they are aware on some level that this is true, what stops them from thinking of themselves as a leader?

There is no single answer to this question. Like most things in life, it will be a range of different things. How comfortable and confident they are in their own skin. How they unfavourably compare themselves to the people they think of as leaders. How able they are to manage those nagging feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome that we all experience at times.

If you’ve read this far, ask yourself this question.

If you find the idea of being a leader uncomfortable, why? What thoughts are springing to mind that are making you feel uncomfortable?

It’s an important question to ask yourself. While many of us know that position or authority are not prerequisites to be a leader, our minds put blockers in the way. The clearer we can be about what those blockers are, the better able we are to challenge them.

There’s something else here too

You may look at that list of people I mentioned earlier and think, ‘I wouldn’t consider that person a leader’. You might not even know who some of those people are.

Everyone has a slightly different idea in mind when they think about what leadership is.

Again, there’s not a single reason for this. Your leadership qualities might be influenced by your upbringing and the leaders you were presented with in your formative years. Perhaps it could be the culture and behavior of leaders in your current and past work environments. It could be both of those things.

Each person on that list is completely different from one another, but are all considered leaders, if not by everyone. So, is it fair to say that there is one definitive version of what leadership is?

I’d say that there isn’t. It’s worth stating that this is also situational. If Ghandi had been put in charge of an IT support department in Slough it’s likely he wouldn’t fare as well as he did when campaigning for India’s independence from British rule!


Each of these individuals has at points, created an environment that enables those around them to work to their fullest potential. They achieve this in part, by understanding themselves and continuously working to enhance their strengths, while acknowledging areas for improvement.

This is something that we are all able to do. Providing we put the time in to reflect, discuss with others and make plans to improve. It’s not to say that there aren’t things taking place around you that you have little to no control over which put barriers in your way, of course there will be.

But one thing we do have absolute control over is ourselves. The ability to change the way we feel, think and act. By recognising this, we can take the first step towards becoming better leaders and improving not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us as well.

I’d like to go back to the question I posed earlier and ask you again…

If you find the idea of being a leader uncomfortable, why? What thoughts are springing to mind that are making you feel uncomfortable?

Pondering this question could be the key to fully realising the leadership potential you possess.

Quanta offer a broad range of People Development and Leadership training and programmes for businesses and individuals.

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