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Are You Afraid to Identify as a Leader?

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 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, we 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, we conducted a series of studies with more than 1,700 participants including full-time employees, MBA students, and U.S. Airforce cadets, and we 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, we identified three common reputational fears that hold people back from seeing themselves as leaders:

Fear of seeming domineering

Many of the participants in our study expressed concern about being seen as bossy, autocratic, or domineering if they were to take on a leadership role. As one respondent 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, we found that in our 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 our 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.”

Harvard Business Review

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