EnglishLeadershipJanuary 22, 20240

Fear of leadership? Understanding and overcoming barriers of High Potentials

Organisations are constantly on the lookout for leaders. This is especially true at a time when the baby boomer generation is retiring and the labour market is tightening. Research shows that seeing yourself as a leader is an important first step on the path to becoming a leader. Yet many people are uncomfortable identifying themselves as leaders. What is the reason for this reluctance? And what strategies can you use to overcome it?

In the following I describe three of the most commonly perceived risks associated with leadership and how they can be successfully addressed.


Fear of leadership

Talented employees often drop out early when given the opportunity to take on a leadership role. What are the factors that prevent so many people from doing so? In many cases, it is the obvious risks and associated fears that prevent promising talent from following their path or that stand in the way of their professional development. The three risks described below are most commonly perceived in the context of leadership:

Image risk

Image risk seems to be an important factor in the choice of a leadership position. This is associated with various fears:

  • Fear of appearing authoritarian

Potential leaders fear being seen as authoritarian, autocratic or domineering if they take on a leadership role.

  • Fear of standing out

An additional concern is that a leadership position may lead to being singled out from anonymity and receiving increased attention, which is unfamiliar to many young people and does not fit with their understanding of teamwork.

  • Fear of appearing unqualified

Regardless of whether they consider themselves qualified, many high potentials are afraid that others will see them as unqualified for a leadership position, or that FOPO (fear of people’s opinions) will prevent them from taking another step towards leadership.


Interpersonal risk

Many people are reluctant to take on leadership responsibilities because they fear it will affect their relationships with colleagues. The fear of jeopardising friendships and triggering negative feelings in others is also a common barrier.


Risk of being blamed

The fear of being held personally responsible for the failure of the group or team is a powerful disincentive. The fear of personal consequences, such as loss of promotion, for collective failure deters many from taking on leadership roles.

It is important to understand that these fears have an impact on how we see ourselves. For example, psychologists believe that people with high levels of anxiety are less likely to see themselves as leaders. As a result, they are less likely to act as leaders and be seen as such by their superiors.


Who makes the first move?

Another aspect to consider when looking for and identifying leaders is the gap between senior management and employees: Upper management often waits for employees to raise their hands and say “I want to lead”. But they are waiting for their boss to come to them and say: “I think you’re ready for this project” and don’t venture out of their comfort zone, partly because of the fears described above. So everyone stays in their positions and wonders why nothing is happening.

So how do you overcome this status quo? In order to identify the necessary leaders, in addition to the activities of the HR department, managers should be persuaded to pay attention to the leadership qualities of their reports and to develop them.


Supporting on the path to leadership

In addition to the implementation of coaching interventions, the Mindful Engagement Cycle is receiving increasing attention.

How coaching can help reduce the anxiety associated with risk

  • Interpersonal risk

Through targeted coaching, leaders can learn to lead with empathy without compromising their interpersonal relationships. Example: A coach can guide a manager to actively listen and respond to the needs of his or her team in order to promote positive interpersonal dynamics.

  • Image risk

Coaching can help managers to remain authentic in their leadership role. For example, managers can be encouraged to communicate their decision-making transparently to avoid the perception of arrogance or the fear of being perceived as arrogant.

  • Risk of blame

Coaching can help prepare managers to take responsibility and deal constructively with mistakes and conflict. Managers can be encouraged to see mistakes as learning opportunities and to work with the team to find solutions.


Mindful Engagement Cycle

Another approach to supporting future leaders is the Mindful Engagement Cycle.

Mindful Engagement is an approach to leadership development that empowers individuals to develop their own leadership. It is based on mindful change of one’s own behaviour. One example will illustrate this:

Suppose you chair an important committee. In other words, you chair that committee and you will chair it anyway because that is the job. Thinking one step further, you can ask yourself the question: “What could I work on myself if I’m doing this job anyway? For example, you might want to become more influential. Or it could be: You want to be more approachable to people. So you are ready to adopt what experts call a “learning orientation” or “learning mindset“.

The next step is to plan some experiments: Things you want to try during this experiment to achieve your goal. For example, if you want to be more influential, you might experiment by saying to yourself: “I will speak last or first in a discussion on a particular topic”, or “I will experiment with speaking in a louder tone of voice”. If you are trying to be more approachable to your staff, you could say to yourself: “I will arrive early at meetings so that I can greet everyone as they enter the room. Instead of sitting at the head of the table, I’ll sit in the middle.

The next step is to gather feedback. This can be done either by paying close attention to people’s reactions to you in an attempt to be more influential or accessible. Or by identifying someone in the working group to ask for feedback after a committee meeting.

At the end of the experiment, it is important to take time to reflect on what has happened. However, this process is uncomfortable for many people because it involves confronting the negative elements of the experiment and therefore a critical examination of oneself. In this situation it is important to have a sparring partner in the manager who can provide support.

This could be a friend or a coach who can talk to the manager at regular intervals for about five minutes and asks questions such as “What was your (weekly) goal? Did you achieve your goal? What prevented you from achieving it?“ This form of feedback from a trusted and neutral person has an extremely positive effect on the manager’s development. A learning mindset can thus be particularly useful for new managers, helping them to develop in their leadership role.


The path to leadership harbours risks and fears of content-related challenges, interpersonal conflicts, recriminations and a negative image. Transparent communication, dealing openly with mistakes and leadership development are crucial. Coaching and the use of the Mindful Engagement Cycle are effective tools for overcoming fears and supporting the development of people in leadership positions.


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