Have you ever been led by a really fantastic leader?  A person poised under pressure, thoughtful and encouraging, empathetic yet firm – someone who really drew your very best to the surface! How about a bad one? What’s the difference? Chances are, when you compare your experiences, there are many stark differences that strike you almost instantly, and a myriad of other subtleties that materialize with further thought. But what about the differences in the individual leaders: What made one wonderful and the other frustrating? Surprisingly, it’s generally not education or experience. Instead, oftentimes, the answer is insecurity.

“Insecure leaders are dangerous – to themselves, their followers, and the organizations they lead. That’s because a leadership position becomes an amplifier of personal flaws. Whatever negative baggage you have in life only gets heavier when you’re trying to lead others.”

– John Maxwell

Several years ago, I experienced the challenge of working under an insecure leader first hand. Our company made some changes, which required our leader to begin shouldering some of the responsibility for sales activity in our branch. Our leader had been quite strict about making sure every one else was completing the necessary sales activity, but funny things started to happen when she was up to bat. We started to realize that most of her sales contacts documented in the database never really happened. The murmuring increased as profitability decreased, and finger pointing started. One-by-one, our leader started throwing employees ‘under the bus.’ Some quit and others transferred. In the end, she was fired, but not before the office was left a smoldering wreck. Our leader had a great education and knew all the right answers; but, her insecurity undermined the whole operation to the detriment of the company, its clients, her employees, and herself.


There are at least four important reasons why competence cannot compensate for insecurity:

  1. Leaders Regulate Meaning – The leader’s way of seeing things has special weight, and followers generally see a leader’s reaction as the most valid response. An insecure leader is more likely to react irrationally or negatively more frequently. The leader’s response is then perpetuated like a chain reaction through the rest of the organization. Consequently, an insecure leader is likely to promote a negative outlook, even beyond the bounds of his direct influence.
  2. Leaders Lend Emotional Guidance – There is an intangible emotional component to leadership. When a designated leader lacks credibility, people may turn elsewhere for emotional guidance. People ‘catch’ emotions from one another, and not all emotions spread with the same ease. Accordingly, studies continue to demonstrate that optimistic, enthusiastic, emotionally stable leaders more easily retain their people. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is true for insecure leaders.
  3. Leaders Develop People – Leaders have a responsibility to develop those they oversee and help them work to potential and maximize effectiveness. However, an insecure leader is generally self-centered, and on a continual quest for validation and acknowledgement. His focus is on self-promotion, even to the detriment of his team. Consequently, the insecure leader continually limits his best people, and may even take credit for the contributions of his team members.
  4. Leaders Manage Trust – When a leader acts disingenuously or manipulatively, the falsity pings on the emotional radar of followers and they instinctively distrust the leader. Because an insecure leader’s focus is on establishing security for himself, he does not see the need to instill it in others. Consequently, an insecure leader will often display a lack of trustworthiness while trying to compensate for his own deficiencies.

We all have insecurities, and they unquestionably manifest themselves – even when we try to bury them deeply. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we have to allow our insecurities to undermine our leadership potential! Instead, we can neutralize them.

  • First, recognize your insecurities. Own up to them! Believe it or not, your followers already know and won’t be surprised by your admissions.
  • Second, mitigate the effects of your insecurities by asking for help. There are a variety of avenues, depending on the nature of the insecurity at issue. This is where counseling, mentorship, and coaching can make a huge impact!
  • Third, apologize to your team as soon as you realize insecurity has reared its head. Do not fear admitting the weakness – It will actually build trust and admiration with your team.

Insecurity is endemic and competence cannot compensate for it. However, by recognizing this truth and taking these few simple steps, anyone can help to neutralize insecurity and become a better leader.

Leave a Comment: Have you ever seen an insecure leader learn to neutralize insecurity and improve? What steps did that leader take? How did the improvement impact the rest of the team?

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