I have a secret to tell you: I discovered in the last couple of years that I have an internal detector for dormant leaders. Do you know any in your organization? Dormant leaders are those people with enormous leadership potential who are holding back their leadership for all sorts of reasons. The sad thing is they have everything they need to be effective leaders, but their current working environment is not supporting them as leaders.
Dormant leaders are people that look forward to getting away from work because it allows them to return to the environment where they can fully step into and live their leadership. They are the coaches in the sporting activities your kids partake in, the team leaders of ski safety patrols, the entrepreneurs who work nights and weekends on the projects of their small business.
The perspective of dormant leaders
Dormant leaders are often in a role that is not an “official” leadership role in the companies where they work. The times they tried to take any initiative, they were shut down by their team lead or by the management team. After multiple attempts and multiple times getting shut down, they finally learned their lesson, crawled back to their offices, and decided to stop trying.
What is really sad is when you talk with them about their personal lives, their eyes light up as they tell you about what they are passionate about and the things they do outside of their workplace. In the same conversation, when you come back to their job, you can slowly see the light in their eyes dim and you can see their face slowly drop as well.
“Why should I make the effort?” “What will it change really?” These are their preferred words of despair.
The perspective of their managers
When you talk with the managers of these dormant leaders, you will often hear one of the following perspectives:
- “Oh yes, that person is full of leadership potential. I would love for that person to bring more of it, but I can’t understand why he is holding back.”
- “Come on… You are dreaming! That person just complains all the time and has no positive leadership at all! He has a negative influence on the team!”
- “This person needs to be told what to do because if we do not do that, he takes no initiative at all.”
What creates dormant leaders?
Business culture is one of the major creators of dormant leaders in organizations today. Companies where there is a strong hierarchical culture with strictly defined roles typically have a big problem of dormant leaders.
Lack of management support is another cause of the problem. Sometimes, dormant leaders have a manager who does not recognize their leadership potential and does not give them opportunities to be leaders internally. Contrary to popular belief, these opportunities do not have to come with formal authority but need to provide the person the opportunity to take ownership of a project.
The dark side of the lack of management support happens with leaders that see a threat to their own personal leadership when others on their team are also acting as leaders. In the competitive landscape we are currently in with limited head counts, maximizing the use of the talents and leadership skills of everybody in the organization can actually become a competitive advantage.
The paradox of dormant leaders
Dormant leaders face an interesting polarity between motivation and effort. When speaking to them, the following questions come up frequently in conversations: “Why should I make the effort? What is going to change?” The other popular variant of these questions is: “Why should I make the effort? I will not be recognized and it will not bring me a salary increase!”
Truth be told, maybe they are right in their assessment, but they will never know unless they take a leap of faith and try something different. One way I like to challenge dormant leaders is by pointing out that doing nothing is very easy because they never have to prove they can do what they claim they can do. They can just claim whatever they want and complain their life sucks because of the actions of others.
Truth be told once again, if they brought themselves fully at work, then maybe they would rediscover that their work could actually be fun and enjoyable again, and maybe a formal leadership role and a salary increase would follow as well.
Remembering untapped capabilities
When I think of dormant leaders in organizations, I think back to the Batman animated cartoon that aired on Fox in the 90s. In one episode, Bruce Wayne is walking around with homeless people and gets clobbered on the head. He loses his memory, which also causes him to forget he is Batman. He finds himself captured and put to work in a mine with homeless people who were also captured from the street.
There is a turning point in the episode when Bruce Wayne is imprisoned in a wooden cell outside in the blazing sun. He feels powerless and cannot escape his cell. During a conversation with someone in a neighbouring cell, he has a flashback and his memory returns. He remembers all of a sudden that he is Batman and he breaks through one of the wooden walls and escapes from his cell.
What was different for Bruce Wayne in that moment? How did he go from powerless to powerful? We are talking about the same person in the same situation right?
The major difference was in how his perception of the situation changed. When he remembered he was Batman, he also remembered capabilities he could tap into to help him get out of his predicament.
So tell me dormant leaders… what capabilities are you currently not using in your workplace?
Awaken dormant leaders!
To all the dormant leaders in organizations around the world, I have some questions for you:
- What really lights you up in your life?
- How do you perceive the world when you do what lights you up the most?
- How do you feel in your bones when you do what lights you up the most?
- How do you perceive your current workplace?
- What is preventing you from being more passionate in your work?
- What stories do you tell yourself that allow you to keep taking no action?
- What could your day look like if you had the professional life you wanted to live?
Dormant leaders are a very personal topic for me. There was a time in my career where I worked in a company where my leadership and my initiative were completely ignored and disregarded by my managers. It was a good company, but during the short time I was there, I had the feeling people were trying to clobber me so that I would forget about being a leader and that I would just conform to my environment.
The big lesson I learned is that in these situations, we have a conscious choice to make between falling asleep and conforming to our environment or remembering who we truly are and have the courage to stand up and do something different. Assuming that the leadership we bring is constructive and positive, if our current working environment does not want to take advantage of the extent of our talent, there are many others out there that would be more than happy to have us.
Are you one of these dormant leaders in an organization? What are you waiting for to wake up and remember who you really are?