3 Key Traits of Insecure Leadership

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Dare to Lead" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is insecure leadership? What are the signs of insecure leadership?

Insecure leadership manifests when a leader resorts to harmful habits to stamp his authority and attract admiration because he is uncomfortable with being vulnerable. Habits of an insecure leader include using fear for control, controlling instead of leading, and self-aggrandizement. 

Read on to discover more about the traits of insecure leadership.

1. Controlling Instead of Leading

Leaders that feel insecure about their ability to lead a team often try to wield their power in a controlling manner. There are two main behaviors that controlling leaders resort to: 

  • The first controlling behavior is micromanaging—you over-structure the work of your team and shave their projects down to mundane to-do lists. Anyone who doesn’t follow your instructions exactly is punished. Controlling your team in this way erases the big-picture context of their work and stifles creativity. If your team isn’t motivated by their interest in the work, but rather by fear of punishment, they’ll disengage and underperform.
  • The second controlling behavior is holding onto authority while pushing responsibilities off onto team members—you hand off tasks to your team members without ensuring that they have the authority to accomplish said tasks. Their inevitable failure to deliver causes you to assume that they can’t be trusted. As a result, you start giving them smaller, mundane tasks and adopting an “I’ll just do it myself” attitude about larger tasks. This sort of insecure leadership causes resentment for both parties—they’re resentful about being punished for something out of their control, and you’re resentful about only being able to trust yourself. 

Brave leaders combat the first controlling behavior by giving their team autonomy and reminding them of the larger purpose of their work. You can do this by sharing your hopes and vision for the organization, and explaining what you’re working toward. Correct your reliance on fear-based motivation by recognizing and rewarding work that’s moving in the right direction, instead of punishing work that’s “wrong.” 

Brave leaders combat the second controlling behavior by thoroughly discussing expectations and capabilities with team members. These discussions should have the goal of clarifying exactly what a successfully finished task looks like. This allows you to identify where responsibility and authority might be misaligned, and reassess each person’s responsibilities. 

Imagine telling a team member, “I need the ad mockup for the meeting at 4.” If your team member has the space for discussion, they have the opportunity to ask, “What do you need exactly? Just the one mockup?” At this point, you may realize that you actually need two versions of the ad with two different themes, and copy for each—a much different result than you’d originally asked for. Now, your team member knows exactly what needs to be done, and where their lack of authority will get in the way. They say, “To get it done by 4, I’ll need you to tell graphics it’s priority. We’ll also need a short meeting at 2 to approve the images and copy.”

If you’d left the conversation at “I need the ad mockup by 4,” you would have ended up with an incomplete ad mockup, or a result far below your true expectations. 

2. Using Fear and Uncertainty for Control 

In times of uncertainty, insecure leaders might weaponize fear to their advantage instead of talking through the emotions with their teams. For example, a leader of a company dealing with financial troubles might use the threat of layoffs to motivate team members to work longer hours for no increased pay. In the short term, fear is a strong motivator, but in the long term, it will manifest as a number of defensive behaviors we’ve explored, such as numbing, perfectionism, and unmitigated criticism.

Brave leaders combat this type of insecure leadership behavior by supporting team members through fear and uncertainty without using it to their advantage. As we explored in the myths of vulnerability, you can effectively communicate about uncertainty to your team by acknowledging fear, giving as much information as you can, and creating a space for discussion. This relieves your team, reducing their defensive behaviors, and builds up their trust in you, which is a strong long-term motivator.

3. Withholding Accolades

In the early stages of your career, it’s okay to keep tabs on the “gold stars” you receive for work well done, or for improving skills. This is useful for discovering your self-worth and knowing what value you bring to the workplace. However, insecure leadership traits start to manifest when you continue focusing on getting validation even after moving up the ranks. You will become distracted from the goal of leadership, when you should be giving out validation and helping team members understand their value.  

Brave leaders combat this behavior by committing themselves fully to the work of leadership and the advancement of their team. When you transition into a leadership role, you need to reorganize your priorities. You should no longer be focused on gathering validation for yourself, but rather focused on recognizing the work of your team members, reminding them of their unique skills, and looking for ways to help them reach their potential, such as with networking or work opportunities.

Insecure Leadership: The 3 Behaviors to Avoid

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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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