Accidental Leadership

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“I think you’ve made a mistake…I mean, I’m… just… Harry. Just Harry.”

Harry Potter. ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001).

Anybody that has held a job where they are the number three or four in an organization, may well resonate with Harry Potter. If you’ve ever woken up at 6:00am on a busy Tuesday, had breakfast and gotten ready for work, to discover once you get there, that you are no longer ‘just Harry’, you’re it, you’re in-charge, you’re the boss! It might be for a couple of days whilst the more senior members of the Leadership Team, make their way back to work. The reasons might be a mix of leave for someone or meetings off-site, a bereavement or possibly a death. It could of course be much longer, a month, a few months, perhaps a year or more. Another progression might be stepping up into an ‘acting second-in-charge’ position for what you think will be a brief period, say 10 weeks, only to find yourself stepping up again to be the acting leader of the whole organization for the rest of the year! Whichever way it happens, accidental leadership is a real thing.

For somebody experiencing a moment of accidental leadership, it can be both exhilarating and petrifying at the same time. It is a moment’s notice of opportunity to really show them how good you can be, what sort or leader you might be and why they should have appointed you years ago! With such huge returns for a career though, comes huge risks, inertia being the most likely and potentially the most dangerous. Afraid of doing things ‘wrong’, the human instinct is to play it safe. If it’s for a day or two until the substantive person returns from sick leave for example, keeping the status-quo is sensible. If it’s a year or maybe even two, you have a real opportunity to prove yourself.

Why is this important? The success or failure of the accidental leader will largely turn on two factors: the initiative and intuition of the accidental leader and the extent to which they’ve engaged in and been provided leadership development opportunities, especially through their employer. The reality is most established leaders, never intended to aspire to leadership when they were first starting out. As a result, leadership development was not likely to be on their radar. This was highlighted in a 2015 report from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership entitled ‘Preparing Future Leaders – Effective Preparation for Aspiring School Principals’, in which they summarize the findings of an earlier 2013 report by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

“Fewer than ten percent of surveyed principals intended to be a school leader when they started teaching. Yet within their first few years of becoming a teacher, one-third of current principals had decided to seek out a leadership post. The biggest factor for more than three-quarters of leaders in their decision to take up the role was that they were encouraged and supported by the leaders in their school.” 

McKenzie, P., Weldon, P. R., Rowley, G., Murphy, M., McMillan, J. (2014). “Staff in Australia’s Schools 2013: Main Report on the Survey”. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

The take-away from this is critical. The offer to take on a significant leadership role within the organization, should not be met with a statement similar to Harry Potter. “I’m… just… Harry. Just Harry.” Whether you’re talking about an educational context, a corporate context, a not-for-profit or a government agency, developing your people to be the very best iteration of themselves that they can be, and that includes leadership development across all levels of the organization, is a must for success and longevity. People tend to not want to be around chaos, planned or unplanned. For the accidental leader they need to have resilience and be imbued with the values and overall vision and mission of the organization. They need to transform from an accidental leader to a ‘break-through leader’. A good working definition of what a ‘break-through leader’ is, can be found in the work of Wayne Baker from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

“Extraordinary events–positive or negative–are temporary openings for breakthroughs in personal growth, organizational development, and human progress. Breakthrough leaders seize these moments to explore a world of new possibilities for themselves, for their organizations, for society.”

Baker, W. (ND). Breakthrough Leadership. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Stephen M Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

It is perhaps in these extraordinary moments, that a person’s true leadership abilities comes to the fore and casts beam of light onto a path of uncertainty, for others to follow. When this happens and followers have confidence and a sense of safety and belonging, trust is created and solidifies the ‘leader – follower’ dynamic.

Where this takes us of course is the importance of quality, targeted professional and personal development of staff, especially those in leadership positions at all levels of the organization. Failure to do so amounts to a failure to mitigate against the risk of events that could, without effective leadership at the time, derail the organization and possibly compromising it into the future.

In his excellent book ‘The Leadership Divided’, Tom Peters puts the acid test as to the quality and effectiveness of an organization’s training program this way.

“If you randomly stop an employee in the hall, can she or he describe in detail her or his development plan for the next twelve months? If not, why not?”

Peters, T. (2018). The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence (eBook). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. p125.

The reality is most established leaders, never intended to aspire to leadership when they were first starting out.


The issue of course is how to ensure this happens and happens regularly. It seems logical that the professional development should be perhaps more frequent rather than a single event, once or twice a year. It should be planned, not a surprise to the staff involved and aligned to the organization’s plans. Often we talk about building leadership capacity but at its heart, we are really talking about building their adaptability capacity. According to a 2021 McKinsey Report by Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet, Ashish Kothari, Johanne Lavoie, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Sasha Zolley, there are four ways in which employers can build and create leadership adaptability.

Use bite-size training as practice.

The prevailing belief has been that deeper awareness and habit-shifting work was possible only through immersive in-person experiences. But as with so many other paradigms, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that view…We’ve seen this approach help companies undergoing upheaval. 

Create learning communities.

This helps create networks across the organization and a deeper sense of belonging, both of which support adaptability. 

Role model at all levels, including visible sponsors at the top.

Role model at all levels, including visible sponsors at the top. Virtual learning can help senior leaders connect meaningfully with more people faster. 

Create enabling mechanisms to build enduring capabilities.

To build adaptability into a skill that becomes part of the organization’s core, it’s important to track progress frequently and meticulously. 

By investing in measures that emphasize well-being, purpose, mindset shifts, deeper connections, and team learning, leaders become better equipped to meet the challenges ahead.

Brassey, J., De Smet, A., Kothari, A., Lavoie, J., Mugayar-Baldocchi, M., Zolley, S. (2021). Future Proof: Solving the ‘Adaptability Paradox’ for the Long Term. New York: McKinsey & Company.

There are of course a range of things that need to be undertaken from the ‘Get-Go’, for the accidental leader to have a chance of being successful.

  • Take a breath before saying yes. Remember to ask clarifying questions.
  • Gather key leaders to discuss, seek advice and formulate a plan forward. Share the responsibility.
  • Meet with all staff via a staff meeting. Outline what has happened and the roadmap forward.
  • As far as possible be a presence amongst staff to give a sense of ‘business as usual’.
  • If the scenario that led to an accidental leader being appointed was due to health issues, ensure you reach out to the leader facing health challenges.
  • Check-In at the end of each day with each of the other leaders, especially frontline leaders.
  • If possible, seek support from your coach and / or leadership network.

It should be stressed that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather an identification of the big rocks, the touch stones, that need to be encountered with some degree of immediacy. It may well help to establish the ‘accidental leader’ as the ‘hero leader’ as they embark on their journey to become a ‘breakthrough leader’. The notion of the ‘hero leader’ is not one of a self-serving individual but rather one for whom service to others is important. Lolly Daskal in her excellent book, ‘The Leadership Gap’, articulates well the ‘hero leader’ concept.

“The word hero is related to the Latin word servo, which means to serve. Great leaders aren’t just heroes; they’re also servants—to their people, their customers, their communities, and the world at large. People who think they are going to lead by demand or by hierarchy will lead only for a short time. But when you lead as a hero—with a servant heart—and you do so courageously, and with the goal of having people work toward something greater than themselves, you can accomplish any goals you set for yourself and your organization.”

Daskal, L. (2017). The Leadership Gap (eBook). New York: Portfolio / Penguin. Ch.5.

Returning to the quote at the start from Harry Potter, it should be crystal clear that in a healthy, well run, and well led organization, the statement of disbelief “but I’m just Harry” shouldn’t even come to mind. What is interesting, if you have seen the Harry Potter movies, is that Harry does indeed move from this disbelief to one of an increasing awareness of the call to serve others. He does this through the skills, knowledge and talents that he possesses and through the support and pooling of those skills, knowledge and talents with his closest friends and supporters. To do this though, Harry Potter and his friends undertake extensive schooling and learning, in order to take on the ‘hero leader’ role that he is called to. Stephen M. R. Covey, in his groundbreaking work ‘Trust & Inspire’, makes the observation that more than ever, we need to move away from a ‘Command and Control’ process as our standard mode of operating to one of trusting your team and inspiring them.

“A Trust & Inspire leader believes that there is greatness in everyone—every person on your team, every student in your class, every child in your home. Their intent is to develop and unleash that greatness while helping people see that greatness within themselves. What sets Trust & Inspire leaders apart is the way that they view people as fountains of greatness, brimming with potential. Because of that, they actively look for the greatness in people.”

Covey, Stephen M. R., with Kasperson, D., Covey, M., and Judd, G. T. (2022).  Trust & Inspire (eBook). London : Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. p76.

Clearly, our accidental leader, given the situation they find themselves in, needs to take control of the situation and most likely, need to be seen as taking control, for staff and stakeholders impacted by the situation at hand. Whilst this suggests a ‘Command and Control’ approach, the nature of the situation is likely to be such, that done well, it may inspire confidence in the staff and stakeholders and in the process build critical trust in the accidental leader. What this means for organizations, government and non-government, is straightforward. In hiring leaders, interview panels need to give consideration as to how the new leader might inspire staff and engender their trust. They should consider how the new leader might build the team and draw out the leadership abilities in others throughout the organization. Consideration should be given to the extent to which the new leader will undertake regular professional development and indeed ensure their team does as well, to build their leadership capacity and their leadership adaptability. Is the new leader, when asked to step up in a crisis as an accidental leader, likely to say “but I’m just Harry” or “I’m just Harry who is here to serve”? Scaled up across all leaders within the organization, the impact upon the organization and its effectiveness should be profound and build toward a promising future.

The struggle of today, is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.”

Abraham Lincoln First State of the Union Address (1861)

Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “The American Presidency Project.”

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