“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Cocktail Party”
We’ve all encountered insecure leaders at some point. I’ve witnessed it myself many times. What always surprises me in these situations isn’t the insecurity itself—how much control it exerts over intelligent and accomplished people, or how devastating it can be for your organization.
It’s how similar the scenarios tend to be. Insecure leaders, in my experience, all seem to follow the same playbook, with the same unfortunate outcomes.
Now, please understand that my aim isn’t to condemn or judge anyone. We ALL have flaws to overcome (including me), and anyone’s leadership ability can be compromised by personality traits. We’re not talking about BAD people, or intentionallyselfish people.
We’re mostly talking about people who have been lied to, day after day, their entire lives. Yes, insecurity is a liar, and here’s what it whispers in your ear:
It’s all about you. Not the team, department, or company.Let’s do what it takes to keep you safe. You’re the priority, after all.
This lie is so damaging that it must be faced, no matter how difficult and awkward.
What Insecure Leadership Looks Like
What does this look like in the wild? Here’s an example.
Company A executes a successful Pinterest and Instagram campaign to support their omnichannel strategy. Company B notes the success, and key players suggest devoting greater resources to social media.
An executive with veto power kills the initiative before it has a chance to grow legs. With an extensive background in tv ads and other traditional marketing, she has little knowledge of social media marketing and has shown no interest in learning.
She finds reasons to justify her decision, of course, reasons that SEEM valid at first glance. But everyone understands what’s going on. This isn’t the first time she’s stepped in and squashed a digital marketing tactic.
Her true motivation is clear for all to see: She will do almost anything to hide her ignorance about digital, in general, and social media in particular. Time after time, she’s made decisions that put her strengths—not her deficits—on full display.
Insecurity doesn’t always manifest in this kind of direct action, though. Other times it’s avoidance, procrastination, changing the subject, being unavailable for meetings, “forgetting,” and various other passive choices. But it’s always about putting one’s ego ahead of the organization.
The True Cost of Insecure Leadership
Psychologists differ about the cause of personal/professional insecurity. Whether the source is environmental, genetic, or some combination, what actually matters is its pernicious effect. What’s the true cost?
In my opinion, it’s impossible to calculate. How could one even begin to quantify the cost of a cumulative “me first” leadership stance? I can’t comprehend the value of all those lost opportunities. Can you imagine?
And what about the other costs? Can fear-driven executives empower up-and-coming leaders?
Can they hold honest, no-holds-barred meetings and conversations?
Can they handle criticism objectively, without feeling personally threatened and lashing out?
Can they make bold decisions and then execute?
The bottom line is that insecure leaders harm your business in everyconceivable way, both externally and internally.
Fixing the Problem: Simple, but Not Easy
Although the problem isn’t easy to fix, the underlying principle issimple: transition to a company-wide culture of radical honesty. Of course, there are many specific processes and systems you can implement, but they all help you move from a “me first” to a “we first” organizational mindset.
One of the saddest aspects of insecurity, in my opinion, is that it’s unnecessary. It’s a waste of energy, all this posturing and pretending. Why? Because it’s embarrassingly clear to everyone what’s going on. The more a person deflects and disguises, the more obvious the insecurity becomes. Managing from a place of fear never fooled anyone.
On the other hand, there is such power in coming clean and admitting when a topic or method is outside your experience!
No one is an expert in everything, and they shouldn’t try to be one—or pretend to be. The minute you ‘fess up and say “I don’t get this,” the energy in the room changes. Have you noticed that?
Radical honesty has the counter-intuitive effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, confidence in a person. Why is that? It takes confidence to admit weakness, and that’s what we all want in leaders: someone with the strength and conviction to simply tell the truth, stop pretending, and put the fragile ego aside.
Honesty inspires honesty, and confidence inspires confidence. I’ve seen this so many times. Working towards a culture of honesty by starting at the top will have a profound impact on your organization. With professional insecurity no longer calling the shots, leaders can look past themselves and finally start putting the organization first.