Solution Saturday: Aspirations Exceed Qualifications

Dear Dan,

I have a team member who aspires to a lofty leadership position. However, the position requires skills and attributes the individual has failed to demonstrate.

I want to keep him positively engaged. He is a major asset to the company, but I don’t want to lead him on or leave him with unmet expectations.

Thank you,

Uneasy about disengagement

when there's nothing wrong with us something's always wrong with others

Dear Uneasy,

This reminds me of a time I applied for a position where I thought I was qualified but wasn’t. I was so unqualified that I couldn’t see my deficiencies. I was succeeding in my position, but wouldn’t succeed if promoted.

Today, I realize it wouldn’t have helped me or the organization if I had been promoted. Back then, I made up stories about why I wasn’t considered. But the truth is my aspirations exceeded my qualifications.

High aspirations always exceed current qualifications.

I remember the day I was told that I wasn’t being considered. It was a two sentence conversation that took the wind out of my sails.

I didn’t ask, “How might I improve myself so that I might be considered for future opportunities.” I falsely believed I was qualified. I didn’t need to improve. They needed to see how great I already was.

When there’s nothing wrong with us, something’s always wrong with others.


  1. Hurt to help. There’s no way around the pain of being told you’re not qualified. Always act in the best interest of your team members, even if it hurts.
  2. Include, ‘right now’. When telling someone they aren’t qualified, use language about the present, not their future.
  3. Let them choose their own aspirations. Explain the qualifications with behavioral illustrations. Give opportunities to opt out on their own. (Beware the aspiration for titles vs. desire to serve in greater ways.)
  4. Would a 360 degree assessment help? When people don’t see themselves, invite others to hold up mirrors. Some of us over-estimate our abilities. That’s not all bad. But, it’s also useful to see ourselves through the lens of others.
  5. Give added responsibilities. Let them temporarily fulfill some aspects of the position that you feel might be out of their reach. Debrief. The goal is to help them clarify their own aspirations, not convince them they aren’t good enough.
  6. Do the job before you get the title. Some organizations add “acting” to a job title. Jack Welch said if you get people decisions right half the time you’re doing good. Would a trial run be useful?
  7. Judge them by who you were when you earned the position, not who you are now. Leaders often forget how much they’ve grown. Might this person deserve an opportunity?
  8. Don’t make negative comparisons between your team member and other candidates for the position.
  9. Give voice to your heart. Be candid and optimistic. As you indicate, you don’t want to lead them on. You want them to thrive. You have concerns. You’re on their team. This feels uncomfortable.
  10. Is there an intermediate position this person would thrive in?
  11. How do you feel about people rising to a position within your organization and going no further?
  12. Engage in other activities that fuel energy. Don’t allow this aspect of your relationship to dominate the entire relationship. Step back and remember the good, celebrate successes, and affirm progress.

Personal reflections:

  1. What are you learning about yourself?
  2. What might you put in place to mitigate these situations, from an organizational point of view?
  3. If you could go back a few years, what do you wish you would have done? (I’m not encouraging you to beat yourself up. What are the learnings?)
  4. What might you be doing that blocks the growth of people on your team? What have you been doing that demonstrates kind candor, courageous transparency, and forward-facing curiosity?
  5. How might you engage in conversations rather than making pronouncements and declaring unilateral decisions?

When I look back on my experience of aspirations that exceeded qualifications, I wish the people over me would have had a developmental attitude. Perhaps I was too closed to even see it. However, today I realize that my development is my responsibility, not someone else’s.

Best wishes,


What suggestions might you offer a leader who has a team member with aspirations that exceed qualifications?

*I suspend my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.

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