Pack Dilemma: Why Do People Opt Out of Leadership?

"Yes, I want to grow my career, but I don't want to go where it's not safe."

Picture herd of elephants on the move. One or two magnificent animals lead the way, while the rest follow in a bunches. The leaders eat first, mate first, and choose the direction of the group. It's the thing we have all at one time or another imagined for ourselves: to be the lead singer, the coach, the CEO, or a team lead. But why don't we take those positions?

There is a mismatch between what we think people want to do and what people are programmed to do. We think that people want to rise and rise and move to the head of the pack, to be in the glory of leadership. We imagine that individuals won't or can't because of low ambitions, intelligence, or maybe even breeding. And we have it wrong.

Why Leaders Opt Out

In reality, people want to be inside the security of the group. Average performance keeps us in the middle where it's safe, where we can't be picked off by predators or socially isolated. The edges -- behind, ahead, or to the side -- are frightening places. Pushing people to the edges -- to leadership or to experimentation -- is resistance against nature. Nature wins.

The challenge that people feel is not to get ahead. It is to stay caught up. It's not to lead the pack, but to be among it. So what can we do to promote the strengths and ambitions of our teammates while working with human nature rather than against it?

3 Ways to Get Your Team to Opt In to Leadership

Accelerate the Pack

To stay comfortably in the pack, we have to be moving at the speed of the pack. Increase the pace by creating ambitious goals that have easy to understand metrics, clear consequences, and routine accountability. Set, track, talk. Maintain an environment where staying in the middle takes work.

Bring in the Edges

Take the risk out of being different. Award the experimental, by praising experiments, even those that fail. Success sits on a pile of mistrials. Regular session to review hobby work and to happily share lessons learned from works in progress and works never to e completed take the risk out of risk.

Move Leadership from Front to Center

The animal in the front of the pack falls first, whether to predator or treacherous landscape. The same happens in a professional environment when a leader takes her team into uncharted areas. The work of blazing trail after trail is tiring and missteps are common. Push others out with the leader, spread the work, and guarantee safety and reward if she returns with empty hands.