The Biggest Barrier to Leadership Biggest Barrier to Leadership

Many people self-select out of leadership. They lean out. They view leadership as the province of others, the ones with confidence, or the answers, or charisma, or vision. Sound familiar?

Many people don’t even consider leading, because they don’t think of themselves as leaders.

And so it is that incredible potential is wasted due to a simple but powerful misconception: “I am not a leader.”

But here’s the good news: We all have the capacity to lead.

The way we’ve been thinking about leadership is all wrong. It turns out the biggest barrier to leadership is in our heads.

“Leadership is your choice, not your title.”
-Stephen R. Covey

With all the problems around us, we all have a responsibility to lead at certain times—to step up and assume a role that may not be comfortable but that serves a higher purpose or fills an urgent need.

Most people think about leadership from the top down, conflating leadership with authority, position, or title. There’s a wonderful Italian expression that offers a different perspective:

“Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box.”

 Too many people focus on the king and disparage the pawn. But what we call “triple crown leadership”—leadership that builds excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations–works up, down, and sideways. It requires leadership from everyone in the organization at times, regardless of their title or position.

After all, where would Shakespeare’s Henry V be without his “band of brothers”? Where would Lincoln be without his “team of rivals”? Where would the Hobbit Frodo Baggins be without Samwise Gamgee, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf?

Triple crown leadership unleashes the extraordinary potential latent in people that languishes in far too many organizations. David Barger, CEO of JetBlue Airways, advises, “Be mindful that there is incredible leadership all around you. Go find it. Go tap it. Go mine it.”

Once activated, such leadership can be transformative for the organization and life-changing for the people involved.

Yet the old ways of thinking about leadership persist, despite their damaging consequences. Too many workers forego their own initiative and leadership potential as they defer to their leaders, awaiting direction. Too many leaders step on the initiative and leadership potential of others, assuming that, as leaders, they must always have the answers and provide direction.

“The old organizational model where a few people decide things, and then ‘manage’ everyone else, just can’t function in today’s environment…. A team is characterized by the fact that every single person takes the initiative and is a ‘changemaker.’”
-Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO, Ashoka

Triple crown leadership is a group performance, enlisting anyone and everyone to lead at times, regardless of the organizational hierarchy.


Reflection Questions

  1. Have you self-selected out of leadership?
  2. What more can you do to step up and lead?
  3. Are you stepping on the leadership of others, or encouraging their leadership?


Tools for You

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Biggest Barrier to Leadership