Sam Walker has written an intriguing piece for the Wall Street Journal this week. The article's title is: "The Eisenhower Code: Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead." Walker recounts how Ike initially was not interested in running for president, after serving the country honorably and capably as a military leader. However, he eventually did choose to stand for election and became a very successful two-term president. Walker cites other reluctant leaders from George Washington to Moses, each of whom served their people very effectively. Walker points to research by Professor Laura Empson on the topic of reluctant leadership: "A 2014 study by London’s Cass Business School found that reluctant bosses are better at navigating office politics and maintaining control while also promoting autonomy. Because they came to power by doing hard work in the trenches, their leadership is often viewed as more legitimate." I'm quite sure reluctance is not a prerequisite for success, but there's something to the point that overly ambitious folks can sometimes get themselves into trouble.
Walker then recounts the story of a hospital executive who reluctantly became CEO. Chuck Stokes served as the chief operating officer of a Houston-based hospital operator for many years. He did not want to be chief executive. However, he reluctantly took the job when he was called upon, and he served very capably. Walker concluded, "While Mr. Stokes has made a fine CEO, his ongoing reluctance raises an interesting question: Maybe the source of our leadership emergency isn’t a lack of talent, but the growing pile of things we expect leaders to do."
Clearly, some very talented people are reluctant to became the chief executive because of the many demands on the job, including the external aspects of the role. Some highly successful folks simply don't want to deal with investors, the press, and other external constituents. They like to work diligently and quietly to execute, and they enjoy building great teams. It's an interesting point, and one that we have to consider given how many complex organizations are and how many directions we are pulling leaders in at times. Having said that, my experience suggests that many leaders don't do a great job of managing their time. They take on many external roles and tasks, when they perhaps should focus more on simply leading their company. It requires tough tradeoffs, but the best leaders recognize that there are limits to their time and attention.