Defining the Default Leader: Overcoming Reluctance and Accepting the Call

default leader

As part of my new Profiles in Leadership Series, I asked several writers with different points of view on leadership to pen essays. Here is the second of those essays. Shannon Leader considers the weighty impact of finding herself a leader by default and not always by choice. Shannon is an outdoor lifestyle blogger in the Pacific Northwest and writes over at Must Hike Must Eat. Read and follow her many excellent travel and trail posts. I promise you’ll be inspired.

May 13, 2019

If you noticed my name you might have thought to yourself that I must be the perfect person to write about leadership.  But the cold hard truth is that it is more like proof that the universe is plotting against me.

I have spent most of my life avoiding anything having to do with being a leader or “in charge”.  In fact, the thought of it makes me nauseous. I would love nothing more than to just have the role of a worker bee.  But last year, even my last name turned against me when I married my wonderful husband.

Definition: something that ranks first.

It started with the birth of my younger sister 47 years ago, I suppose, and the next 4 siblings who followed.  Yes, I am a first born. Leader by default of birth order.

I spent my adolescence hearing “YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME,” words that should sound familiar to anyone with younger siblings that has been put in charge by parents off doing whatever.  In my case, parents busy dealing with alcoholism and codependency. I’m sure those formative years lead me to a big part of who I am today.

Definition: a person who rules or is in charge.

My leadership roles tend to result less through intention but rather by lack of a opposition.  As if the roles were just a logical assumption, mostly by others.

Every job I have worked at I have found my way into a management or leadership position because I was good at what I did, not because I had aspirations to be in charge.  A position inevitably opens up and everyone assumes you are going to move into it.

I’d last about a year as manager or director and then find myself ready to move on to another position out of the limelight.  I enjoy training and creativity and coaching but managing staff is not how I want to spend my work day.

Definition: a person who guides others.

This theme has carried into non-work related situations, as well.  Everyone meets to talk about a task at hand. Someone needs to help bring it all together. The question goes up, who wants to help lead this?

Folks will look around at everyone else with eyes full of hope that someone other than them will volunteer. But no one volunteers.  “Anyone? It won’t take much.”


Then, as if in unison, everyone turns and looks at that one person, “How about you?  You are so good at this kind of thing.”

That person is often and reluctantly me.

I am most certain that I have never gone into something thinking I wanted to be the leader or in charge.  Somewhere along the way when things aren’t happening or someone is needed to make it all happen, I find myself in that position.  To use the term “by default” may sound rather self-deprecating but it’s more about a lack of conscious choice.

I can be an animated and outspoken person (AKA passionate). I’m good at time management and recordkeeping, I suppose.  I can come across as having a breadth of knowledge that gives others the impression I should naturally be the one get others moving in the same direction.

Or maybe the shy child I once was has turned out today to have an ability to make sure others get to play a part and have a voice.

Definition: a person who inspires others.

These days I find myself being encouraged to lead in some pretty fun ways.  I participated in a mountain scrambling class and before I know it was taking outdoor leadership classes and then asked to become a scramble leader.

Signing up to be a simple trail work volunteer for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the following year I was on the leadership team for our local chapter and co-leading a crosscut crew out into the wilderness for 8 days.

Next month I will be “The Boss” (overseer) of a trail work skills college that helps train and encourage others to volunteer.  I think this happened mostly because I had several opinions about what we needed to do differently than last year.

I did not walk into any of these circumstances saying, “Please pick me,” or “Put me in charge.”  But no matter what I do, there is always someone who will whisper in my ear and suggest I take that position.

A leader, by default.

It’s quite clear the universe is conspiring against me.  Or perhaps, the definition of what I consider a leader inhibits me from owning the fact that I may very well be one.  I never see myself as one of those confident people who deliberately seek out roles of responsibility and vision.

In my mind I end up being the leader in situations because no one else wanted to step up.  A sucker. But if I continue to find myself as the leader in situations time and time again, that theory really can’t be true.  It’s more a manifestation of my lack of confidence.

There are many meanings for the title of “leader.” And just as many, if not more, opinions on what being a leader entails.  I guess I really can’t complain too much if time has found me in positions of leadership.  Not because I actively choose them, but because others thought I was fit for the role. Or whether or not I want to claim it, I was the best person for the job.

I’d like to think that for the most part, I live up to those expectations.  And if the role of leader finds me guiding and encouraging other people in the things that I am passionate about, I will gladly carry that label.   And if it means that goals I think are important will get done, I can get behind that too.

Yes, I am a leader.  And not just Mrs. Leader.  

Your turn: Have you ever felt like a “default leader?” Have you learned to embrace the idea of leadership? What drives your passion?

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

6 thoughts on “Defining the Default Leader: Overcoming Reluctance and Accepting the Call”

  1. Thank you for letting me share my leader story, Angela! I can’t wait to read what others write about their own experiences. With so many ways to define leadership or what makes a leader, I hope to learn from what others think.

    1. Thank you for sharing it with us! I think there’s lots to explore here. And I know many, including myself, have had the experience you describe. I think one of the challenges I’ve faced the trifecta of competing drives. First, there’s wanting to lead versus feeling obligated. Sometimes I want to take the lead, other times, I allow myself to be sucked into it by peer pressure or flattery. Next there’s wishing I was leading because I was frustrated with the progress. And finally, there’s leading because no one else can be bothered–martyr leading I’ll call that one. I’ve experienced them all. The best kind is what you end your essay with–leading because I have a passion for the work and for the people I’m doing it with. That’s the sweet spot.

      1. Yes, definitely the sweet spot. When you are asking yourself in the middle of it, “Why am I doing this”, knowing that answer can make all the difference!

  2. Great post! This is a tough one for me. I’m just reading a book–Boundaries–because too often I just take things on. But after reading this, I need to see what counts as “leadership” in my church vs. “just do it all yourself.” It seems these titles are interchangeable for some reason…and shouldn’t be…

    1. Oh! Excellent observation. I’m thinking a lot about leadership (obviously) and that’s a great question. Is it leadership if we do it all ourselves? It’s tempting to be sure, but is it the right way to go? I know I’ve done it and thought it was in the name of efficiency. But more often, bringing people along with me makes all the difference. Great comment–thanks Jean!

  3. Shannon
    You have a gift of leadership that belies your “shyness “. You do have passion to step up and help to bring out the best in others. You don’t do it from arrogance but from an innate talent. That is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story.

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