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Leadership avoidance is a phenomenon in which individuals, despite having the potential to lead or the opportunity to take charge, intentionally shy away from leadership roles or responsibilities. This behavior can be driven by fear, self-doubt, or a lack of confidence in their abilities, among other factors. When leadership is avoided, it can have a negative impact on the team or organization, leading to reduced productivity, poor decision-making, and diminished morale. 

But take heart: leadership avoidance can be overcome. Here’s how.

Why confidence in your leadership matters

Developing leaders in your association is critical to ensure a smoothly running organization. Strong leadership – and leaders who are confident in their abilities – are important when it comes to succession planning, growth, and financial stability. 

And even though 83% of companies feel that developing leaders is a priority, only 5% have committed to leadership development. As Boomers retire and millennials prepare to take the helm, confidence in leadership matters more than ever. 

So how do you overcome leadership avoidance? Here are five strategies for organizations and individuals.

1. Cultivate self-awareness and self-reflection

The first step to overcoming leadership avoidance is understanding the root causes behind the reluctance to lead. Individuals should invest time in self-reflection to identify their fears, insecurities, or limiting beliefs that are holding them back. 

By becoming more self-aware, potential leaders can acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and work on building the necessary skills and confidence to take on leadership roles.

Related: 10 Ways Association Leaders Can Build Their Emotional Intelligence Learn More >

What a reflective practice looks like

A reflective practice is not linear but loosely it follows a cycle of:

  1. Planning
  2. Experiencing
  3. Reflecting

At any point in the cycle, it’s appropriate to step back to see what’s working and what needs help.

2. Seek out (and embrace) opportunities for growth and development

Leadership skills and confidence can be developed over time through continuous learning and practice. Individuals should seek opportunities to learn new leadership techniques, attend workshops or seminars, and gain practical experience by volunteering for leadership roles in various settings. 

Associations can help by providing relevant professional development opportunities. By actively seeking growth opportunities and working to improve their skills, potential leaders will become more comfortable in leadership positions and be better prepared to face challenges.

Related: 7 Skills & Qualities You Need for a Successful Career in Associations Work Learn More >

How to enhance your professional growth and development

Professional development should be driven by a potential leader’s interests,  abilities, and growing edges.

  • Start with objectives: What outcomes are you seeking?
  • Eliminate obstacles: Brainstorm strategies that can help you seamlessly integrate learning into your day.
  • Create new habits: Set a specific time for targeted professional development every day, and stick to it.
  • Learn in the perfect style: Don’t rely on video if cooks work best for you.
  • Collaborate: Can you work with others to better enhance your learning?

3. Establish a supportive network

Having a strong professional network is crucial in overcoming leadership avoidance. Actively seek out mentors, peers, and friends who can offer guidance, encouragement, and constructive feedback. This network can provide valuable insights and advice and offer a safe space to discuss fears and concerns related to leadership. 

By surrounding themselves with supportive people, potential leaders can gain the confidence to take on leadership roles.

How to build a supportive network

Building a supportive network doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t work without some structure.

  • Set goals: What are you trying to accomplish? A mentorship? A collaborative group?
  • Reach out to your current network: This can be colleagues, bosses, and clients.
  • Go global: Join national and international organizations that are within your field.
  • Attend events: Go to conferences, lectures, and other gatherings of your organization (and those that are similar).
  • Get feedback: Sit down with mentors and your network to get feedback on how you’re doing.

4. Set realistic goals 

Sometimes leadership avoidance stems from the fear of failure or the belief that one must be perfect in a leadership role. To address this, individuals should set realistic goals and expectations for themselves, acknowledging that mistakes and setbacks are a natural part of growth and development. By establishing achievable objectives and learning from mistakes, potential leaders can build the resilience necessary to lead effectively.

Voltaire had it right when he said, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.” It starts with the proper goals.


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How to set realistic goals

Many potential leaders fail from the start because their goals are lofty or unattainable. The key to success when setting goals to overcome leadership avoidance? Set SMART goals.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific: “I will meet weekly with a mentor and attend four quarterly conferences on leadership to expand my skills in organization and planning.”
  • Measurable: “With these new skills, I will move into junior management with a change in title and an increase in project management.”
  • Attainable: “I have the on-the-job experience I need, and the conferences will help me sharpen my skills.”
  • Relevant: “My association needs help transitioning leadership that includes planning for the future and organizing membership recruitment and expansion – my new leadership position can focus on those things.”
  • Time-bound: I plan to be in this new role at the end of the fiscal year.”

SMART goals set a deadline, but there is support and clear milestones as you move toward them. If you lack confidence in your leadership skills, this type of goal-setting can help.

5. Embrace a growth mindset

Adopting a growth mindset is a powerful way to overcome leadership avoidance. This mindset involves viewing challenges as opportunities for growth and understanding that ability can be developed over time. By embracing a growth mindset, potential leaders can become more open to taking risks, learning from failure, and continuously striving for improvement. This attitude fosters a willingness to step into leadership roles and face the challenges that come with them.

Related: Why Associations Need Futurist-Minded Leaders Learn More >

Again, a growth mindset embraces the idea that great leaders can be made — they are not born. 

How to develop a growth mindset

Start by identifying your own mindset: Do you think leadership comes naturally, or do you see examples of leaders who developed over time?

  • Analyze how you improve: Can you remember times when something was challenging but is easy now? How did that occur?
  • Consider the path of other leaders: How did the leaders you admire get to where they are?
  • Ask for feedback: After a project is complete, ask mentors for feedback on what they saw as working (and what could use improvement).
  • Shift your mindset: Think of skills you need to develop, and reframe your thoughts about them. Adding “yet” to the end of any sentence can help, as in, “I am not adept at planning and organization…yet.”
  • Go back to professional development: Actively seek learning opportunities to build both your skillset and your confidence.
  • Get it wrong: Humans learn by making mistakes.
  • Try again: Persistence is key.

Overcoming leadership avoidance is a process

Leadership avoidance can be a significant barrier to personal and professional growth as well as the success of a team or organization. By cultivating self-awareness, seeking opportunities for development, establishing a supportive network, setting realistic goals and expectations, and embracing a growth mindset, individuals can overcome this avoidance and unlock their full potential as leaders. As more people step up to take on leadership roles, organizations will benefit from a diverse and skilled pool of leaders, resulting in improved decision-making, increased productivity, and higher employee morale.

Suzannah Kolbeck
Post by Suzannah Kolbeck
April 7, 2023
Suzannah Kolbeck writes, paints, and rides horses in Baltimore, MD. She is the author of Healing Where You Are: An Introduction to Urban Foraging.