Those of us who lead others have never experienced challenges quite like those we face today. Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across our land, we thought, “This is the worst. What else could possibly happen?” And then the “what else” did happen when George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, begging for breath, was killed under a policeman’s unrelenting knee.
Crises have a way of exposing the best and the worst leaders. Step back and observe the leadership skills (or lack of them) you’ve observed in others and yourself over the past three months. Which leaders have been able to inspire, unite, and motivate? Which ones have confused and divided people, leaving them to flounder in despair?
I believe there is one common trait present in all ineffective leaders: emotional insecurity. Insecure leaders become a blight on everything they touch. It doesn’t matter if the organization is a soccer team, church, bank, Fortune 500 corporation, or nation. Leadership, which is both mysterious and invisible, is the art of naming reality, creating a culture, and guiding expectations. As the coronavirus moves across our nation like locusts through a wheat field, we need clarity and focus — something insecure leaders are incapable of offering.
The health of the leader’s soul affects (and infects) the entire culture. If the leader is insecure, the environment becomes devoid of trust, calling forth the worst — not the best — in everyone. As racial tensions mount in the wake of George Floyd’s death, leaders have the opportunity to calm and unite or frighten and divide. Stated simply, insecure leaders produce insecurity. They poison all that surrounds them.
Insecure leaders lack a sense of humor. Good leadership requires the ability to laugh at oneself and the incongruities of life. What workplace has not benefited from a good belly laugh? It relieves tension and allows us to admit we don’t have things under control. It’s no accident that some of the world’s greatest leaders know how to laugh, and often at themselves. Poor leaders, soaked in self-doubt, take themselves too seriously, which sadly, makes them more laughable.
Insecure leaders live in fear. Fear of being found out, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of the facts, and fear of others. We lead and serve others best when we operate from a calm core.
Insecure leaders crave the approval of others. Any leader — CEO, union organizer pastor, or politician — can become frozen in popularity paralysis. Proverbs 29:25 asserts, “The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that.” Mark it down. Crowd-pleasing disables a leader. In these days of national malaise, I’d love to hear an elected official say, “I’m not sure national polling is on my side and I may lose my next election, but I’m going to do what is right.”
Insecure leaders over-compensate. Leaders sometimes slip into unhealthy default modes: micro-managing, bullying, shouting slogans, bragging, waving a Bible or a flag — anything to make up for feelings of incompetence or irrelevance. A wise man once observed that as the freight train passed through his town, he could always distinguish an empty car from a loaded one: the empty one rattled and made all the noise.
Insecure leaders are thin-skinned, so they never benefit from helpful criticism. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, the slightest rebuff becomes huge. Even constructive criticism is perceived as an attack on our self-worth. Defensiveness and paranoia prevent us from hearing hard truth. Mediocre leaders talk; great leaders listen — even when it stings.
Author and speaker Brian McLaren shares very honestly about his own struggle with criticism. As his fame grew, so did the verbal attacks. In The Great Spiritual Migration, he confessed, “My greatest danger lay in how I would react to my critics, and my greatest enemies were the immaturity, pride, fear, and insecurity within me. If I were driven by the need to be right — or thought right by others — I would show how little I had experienced the liberation to which I was calling others!”
Insecure leaders spend too much time scapegoating and excuse-making. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Think of sitting Sunday after Sunday under a professional holy man who is constantly asserting his egocentricity by criticizing yours.” Insecurity creates a downward spiral, preventing us from dealing with the real issues within ourselves, others, and our organization. Insecure leaders want all the authority and none of the responsibility, so they deflect. Because such posturing requires vast amounts of energy, the leader becomes exhausted and so does the organization, church, or country.
At every level, good leadership is about emotional health. For better or worse, who we are on the inside eventually comes tumbling out, especially in times of crisis. Richard Rohr reminds us that what we do not offer up to God for transformation ends up being transmitted to those around us. It is sad, scary, and wondrous all at the same time: a leader’s personality permeates the organization.
So, leaders, let’s get healthy. The stakes are high.