by Michael Goater
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017

The Reluctant Leader is a self-help coaching manual intended, as the title implies, for those who hold back from seeking leadership and those in leadership roles already who find difficulty in exercising their influence and authority.

Both authors bring extensive practical experience to the task from their work with individuals, groups and teams in the private, public and voluntary sectors. The book is equally informed, as one would expect from Professor Shaw's academic credentials, with a wealth of appropriate theory, but the text wears its learning lightly and is readily approachable throughout.

In so brief a volume it would be inappropriate to ask for a thorough exploration of the field. Nonetheless, its 25 short chapters offer a comprehensive coverage of the topics most relevant to the authors' principal purpose. This, they say, owes to a commitment to enabling others to overcome their self-doubt and anxieties to realise their leadership potential or - as importantly - as members of an organisation at whatever subordinate level to 'manage upwards' in the interests of efficiency, productivity and job satisfaction. These latter will find assistance here in understanding why leadership can be dysfunctional to the detriment of morale and performance. One hopes the authors might be persuaded to write a companion piece treating specifically the management of relationships in the workplace from the point of view of the 'Reluctantly Led'.   

The book is organised in three sections:
  • Part one invites readers to consider why good leadership matters and what it is psychologically that inhibits people from stepping up. The points in these introductory chapters are well made, for, as the authors note, our complex contemporary society requires a range of leadership styles, and, among emerging leaders, a self-awareness and flexibility to an unprecedented degree to deploy their gifts. To this end, to accompany their analysis the authors offer a range of straightforward, helpful strategies to overcome particular resistances. Here, and throughout, the reader is assisted by brief 'case studies' prefacing most chapters to illustrate the matter, and questions to conclude to highlight major themes and provoke reflection. Care has been taken in devising the illustrative material to ensure a gender balance, though to judge from their names few of the actors are non-European.
  • The nine chapters of part two continue the authors' project by addressing the assumptions and anxieties that frustrate people's development as leaders. As earlier, strategies are suggested to help overcome cognitive and affective impediments and build personal resilience. These range from the commonsense, such as keeping a sense of perspective, time-management and discovering sources of support, to the more technical skills of reframing.
  • In part three, the authors move forward in 14 chapters to address those who doubt their capacity to exercise the leadership role they have acquired. There is a great deal here that bears reflection, generously and accessibly presented. The hard questions of engaging with contrary colleagues, personal popularity, and maintaining energy and vision are not shirked, while earlier material is revisited and expanded. The book concludes with two chapters which return to a key theme introduced at the outset, that of the collegial, 'enabling leader' adept not only at realising her own potential but unlocking that of others. Finally, the reader is offered a ten-step summary programme and a short list of suggestions for further reading.   

A preface by Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, commends The Reluctant Leader as a quarry of ideas and good practice to encourage the hesitant and uncertain to trust themselves, and with their abilities hallowed and directed aright thereby to surprise themselves at what they might accomplish. It is a worthy aspiration this book could help many realise.

Revd Canon Michael Goater is a former Master of St Nicholas Hospital, Salisbury, and pursues a life-long involvement in education in retirement.