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With rare exception, every time a leader oversteps or makes a wacky decision or behaves poorly there is a predictable choral response that follows. “S/he is just so insecure.” No emotion. No judgment. Just statement of fact.

I’ve been hearing this reaction for decades…especially when it comes to working for a particularly difficult boss. You know the type: unpredictable behavior, extremely political motivations, unholy alliances, self protective and even secretive. Those around this boss hear and feel the impact of these actions and quickly call it out for what it is. And they don’t need a psychology degree to figure out that this person just doesn’t have enough self confidence.

And I think the most striking thing about this dynamic is not that everyone gets it but that the leader is so blind.

Let’s take a closer look at this. As humans, we are all prone to insecurities. Very few among us are so solidly certain of our strengths, wisdom and shortcomings and completely comfortable in our own skin. Most of us, especially leaders, are self confident about 70% of the time. The rest of the time this is what happens:

  • We are uneasy with some perceived deficit. We may not be competent enough in some area of responsibility. Or there are certain types of people that undo us. Or there are situations that take us way outside of our comfort zones. This happens to all of us. It’s what we do with that anxiety when it hits us. For the overly cautious leader that usually means paralysis. For the more assertive leader that means turning up the volume in spite of uncertainties. In both cases the extreme reactions telegraph discomfort.
  • We are under massive pressure and don’t know how to relieve it. The business is struggling. Multiple stakeholders are expecting better results. Tough decisions need to be made that will have a negative impact on the people. Choices have been whittled down to bad and less bad. We can all joke (or maybe it’s just me!) that “that’s why you get paid the big bucks” but this is not a solution to the non-stop tension. Leaders under this type of pressure can behave poorly…it’s the old fight or flight response. Again, this becomes an Emperor with no clothes moment to the staff if not managed well.
  • Leading and managing is complicated. Just because we ascended in the organization doesn’t mean that we are, in fact, fully capable of performing all that is required. There is quite a steep learning curve…even for the most savvy and talent folks. Staff will be understanding up to a point as you navigate your new role. But if you keep messing up the “s/he is just learning or insecure” soon turns into “she is in way over her head”. The latter is not so forgiving.

This is all very human and normal behavior. But a steady diet of it is unproductive and infuriating. So if you are a leader who actually does perceive your own insecurities, here’s what I think works better in the real world.

  • Own it. Genuine and truthful trumps uncertain and phony every time. Rather than passive retreat or over the top bluster try being thoughtful. “These are tough issues and there are no easy answers. Let me hear more of your thoughts, talk with some of my peers and then get back to you for more discussion.” When we are insecure it is either because we don’t have enough information/skill/competence on the topic or we are anxious about the impact of our decisions. Either way, keeping the process more open and engaged is helpful.
  • Manage the most extreme feelings out of view. If your insecurities lead to obsessive rethinking or embarrassment or self deprecation or lashing out then you have let your emotions get the better of you. Don’t let them see you sweat like this. Talk with a trusted confidant who you can vent with, get some good guidance from and provide a safety zone for your self doubts. The more you let the staff see emotions that go beyond ordinary anxiety the more you risk your credibility.
  • Become acutely aware of the impact of your behavior on others. If you continue to have a blind spot about how your own insecurities spill over onto others you will find yourself way out of favor. It will surface in 360 and performance reviews on a periodic basis. But much worse, you will begin to feel very isolated. You will notice that people avoid you. And by that time it may be too late to fix the situation.

The point of leadership is not to be perfect or always in the know or always correct. It is more about being your best self and engaging the greatest skills and insights from all those around you. When most of us think about the best boss we ever had it is usually someone who was remarkably human and open about that.

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