Years ago, I accepted a job even though I was told that the team I was to lead didn’t want me as their leader. During my tenure, I received anonymous threats to leave, as well as episodes of sabotage and unhelpful behavior. Despite this, I was convinced that I could win them over with my leadership skills. Instead of improved conditions, however, things got worse. It became clear that the team was just waiting for me to make a mistake. Like all leaders (and indeed all humans), I eventually did.
Rather than having a supportive team, I instead experienced attempts to oust me from the position. It was an untenable position, and eventually I left. Afterward, many others in the organization voiced concerns that I was a victim of racism. While it is possible that my colour may have been one strand of motivation, I believe that the deeper issue was the unmanaged insecurity of the organization’s leaders that may have driven the negative behaviors from the start.
Motivation and theory
Most professionals have their own stories of working for organizations with difficult or unhealthy leadership. In fact, being on the receiving end of negative leadership behaviors rooted in insecurity is especially likely if you are competent (Davey, 2017).
Studies have found that conflicts with leadership are a “critical driver of loss of high-performing talent” (Kutty, 2020). Often, when faced with insecurity, individuals can become more rigid and show reduced creativity, resulting in products, solutions, or work habits that are less than innovative (Probst, Stewart, Gruys, & Tierney, 2007). The irony of these behaviors and methods intended to “re-secure” often go unchecked, which reinforces the leader’s thinking that this leadership method works (Lubans, 2007).
There are many reasons why behaviors like this continue to present themselves in top leaders across organizations and industries. I believe the main reason we continue to see insecure behavior in leadership is that we are all insecure leaders. We all demonstrate that insecurity differently through various characteristics; however, it’s how we manage that insecurity and even our awareness of that insecurity that determine whether subsequent leadership behaviors will be positive or negative.
As a leader, I often feel insecure in my abilities and position, and over the years I have learned that I am not alone in this. Firstly, insecurity is simply fear. As Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab explain in their 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article:
“Fear starts in the part of the brain called the amygdala. When our ‘thinking’ brain gives feedback to our ‘emotional’ brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, going from one of fear to one of enjoyment or excitement” (Javanbakht, & Saab, 2017).
So, if fear leads to insecurity, then being insecure is a normal reaction. But if it is natural—even expected—to experience insecurity, then why doesn’t our culture embrace leaders who are insecure? We live in a world where we are surrounded by fear-inducing stimuli, propagated by media and our experience, to name just a couple sources. Though these fears are nearly always unsubstantiated, a fear response is tolerated because fear is part of the human experience (Holtz, 2015). Our expectations of our leaders should be no different.