Why you shouldn’t be afraid of being a reluctant leader

Reluctance in leadership is an everyday occurrence that some people fear. However, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former U.S. CENTCOM Commander says that with knowledge, patience and confidence, anyone can do well in recently attained positions of authority.

Photo courtesy of LinkedIn.com

By Justin K. Thomas

July 12, 2017

Every day, people at all levels of management are placed into situations where they have to lead others reluctantly. However, that doubt in one’s capabilities can be minimized by learning about past leaders and observing the current situation, said retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former Commander of United States Central Command.

“Knowledge overcomes fear,” Zinni said. “When people are afraid or anxious about assuming a role or responsibility, it’s usually because they haven’t had prior familiarity. To help lessen that apprehension, a person may want to gain as much knowledge and information about the position beforehand by observing those around them and reading about past leaders and their ability to accomplish a set of goals.”

Zinni stated there are certain traits subordinates will see as admirable in reluctant leaders whatever the environment.

“I would say that there two qualities subordinates will find motivating in their leader whether he or she is new to the job,” he said. “First is confidence. People want to know if you can lead them to success. The second trait would be how you interact with people. Subordinates want to know if you care about their welfare, can you mentor them professionally towards achievement and that you are approachable.”

In addition to leading one of the U.S. military's nine combatant commands, Zinni was involved in the planning and execution of Operation Proven Force and Operation Patriot Defender during the Gulf War and noncombatant evacuation operations in Liberia, Zaire, Sierra Leone and Eritrea.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense

As to being too approachable, Zinni said that all leaders must draw a line.

“As a new Platoon Leader of Marine Infantrymen during the Vietnam War, I had to ‘feel’ my way around,” he said. “At times, you’re not sure how to interact with [at that particular time in American history] your men. However, I had a great Platoon Sergeant by the name of Harold Ball that said it was his job to make me the best Marine officer I could be. While under his ‘wing,’ he stated that I shouldn’t try to be one of the troops because it’s not what they expected and that it doesn’t work well.”

Quoting the 13th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Major General John A. Lejeune, Zinni said, ‘“The role of leadership should be a father to son or teacher to scholar’ so that the right amount of influence and respect is maintained.”

Seen here on NBC's 'Meet The Press,' General Zinni discusses various American national security and foreign policies. After retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. Zinni led American diplomats as the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace from 2001-2003.

Photo courtesy of NBC Television

Zinni also said that the situation can, at times, make the leader.

“Sometimes there will be a person doing their day-to-day job, and no one will notice them until a major event or crisis happens,” he said. “That’s when their true abilities shine through.”

Former President of the United States Harry S. Truman is an example of the situation making the leader.

“In our national history, I believe many reluctant leaders stand out,” Zinni said. “But, Truman did so at such a critical time. He was not prepared to be president. President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept him out of the ‘loop’ on many policies which included the development of the atomic bomb. And when Roosevelt died, Truman found himself under tremendous pressure of ending World War II. In one of his first press briefings, he asked those in attendance to pray for him. Truman went on ensure that ‘the buck stopped’ with regarding presidential responsibility.”

Although leading others may seem daunting, Zinni said that with patience and sincerity, a reluctant leader can do quite well.

“Most fear about leading people comes from not understanding what you’re getting into,” he said. “Continue to develop your confidence and gain fluency in your profession. Once you get the experience, it will be easier to repeat it.”