10 Symptoms of Insecure Leadership

Insecure leaders are dangerous to any organization. They are especially hazardous in church settings. Quick clarification, every leader has areas of insecurity. And, leaders have seasons of insecurity that aren’t permanent. Usually, because of extremely traumatic circumstances, exhaustion, or feelings of displacement in a new position, role, or environment. This article is addressing chronic toxic insecurities in leaders. Toxically insecure leaders destroy lives, organizations, and almost everything they touch if they don’t recognize their internal condition and correct it.

If you’re a leader, check yourself for these symptoms. Better yet, ask your spouse or someone you respect if you are showing any of these symptoms. If you are, it doesn’t have to be terminal. You can adjust, grow, change, and become a truly dynamic leader. Facing our flaws is always challenging, but it pays big dividends later on.

Maybe you’re concerned someone close to you is a toxic leader. If so, please understand a toxically insecure leader will display at least three or more of these symptoms. Be careful not to misdiagnose a leader because they exhibit one or two of these symptoms from time to time. However, if you find that you are working with or for a toxically insecure leader, you would be wise to distance yourself if and when possible. Otherwise, you will be pulled into their injuriousness as either a collaborator or a victim.

King Saul is a prime biblical example of a genuinely toxic insecure leader. He was anointed, impressive, loved, and gifted, but his unbridled jealous insecurities prompted him to hate David. King Saul’s insecurities sent him down a twisted path of self-destructive behavior. Tragically, when a leader like Saul falls prey to their insecurities, they can unleash a whirlwind of hurt. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Below are ten common symptoms found in toxically insecure leaders. However, along with each symptom, there is a helpful prescription listed.

1. Insecure Leaders are Easily Offended

Not only are they offended easily by genuine affronts, but insecure leaders are angered by a seemingly endless list of perceived slights. Insecure leaders continuously feel as if they are being disrespected, attacked, taunted, or rejected. The insecure leader’s posture of offense reveals selfishness as their deeper character flaw. Because they view everything through the lens of self, they filter everyone’s actions as being about or directed at them. Insecure leaders speak and act against their real or perceived offenders often. They go on long crusades demanding respect or diminishing those who seemingly refuse to admire them.

The Prescription for Easily Offended Leaders

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense”

Proverbs 19:11

We overcome offenses by looking up to God. It really is that simple. The apostle Peter reminds us that it is an honor to suffer offense – even unjust offenses – if we are mindful of God (1 Peter 2:19). To be sure, Peter’s readers were dealing with offenses more severe than the kind Westerners typically face: physical abuse (1 Peter 2:20), ridicule (1 Peter 4:4), fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12). But learning to overlook the most significant offenses usually begins with learning to forgive the smallest. Enduring slander begins with enduring a sarcastic remark. Enduring a beating begins with enduring a cold shoulder. Being mindful of God in everyday offenses trains us to be mindful of Him when the worst comes.

“The daggers others throw your way will become in God’s hand chisels to fashion you into the image of Christ.”

Scott Hubbard

Offended leaders must rest in the knowledge that God sees all offenses (Hebrews 4:13), God will settle all offenses (Romans 12:19), and God can satisfy us amid offense (Isaiah 58:11). When offense comes, it’s always tempting to allow bitterness, revenge, fantasy, distraction, pleasure, or self-justification to bring temporary satisfaction to our grievance. But only God can fill us with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). Only God can call us back from darkness (1 Peter 2:9). We can always rise above offense by lifting our eyes to God.

2. Insecure Leaders Pass the Blame

Confident leaders are comfortable accepting responsibility for their mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, drops the ball, and gets it wrong from time to time. But insecure leaders find creative ways to blame others for their failures. They pass the buck to anyone or anything they can find. Because insecure leaders refuse to acknowledge their own mistakes, they never learn to correct them.

Furthermore, individuals forced to take blame unfairly on an insecure leader’s behalf are deeply wounded. Understandably, this creates constant turnover and turmoil in the leaders serving underneath an insecure leader. At the root of the blame game are an insecure leader’s ego and pride. Passing the buck begins by uprooting pride. Once pride is gone, humility can confidently take its place.

The Prescription for Blame Passing Leaders

“For we are each responsible for our own conduct.”

Galtatians 6:5

God resists prideful leaders who lack humility (James 4:6). On the other hand, God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Thankfully the passage of Scripture doesn’t stop there. It goes on to provide us with the exact prescription for curing pride:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:8-10 ESV

3. Insecure Leaders Tear Other People Down

Insecure leaders can’t help themselves from tearing other people down verbally, not necessarily to their face, but behind their backs. They are careful to couch their criticism as concern or something innocuous, but they intend to tear down their perceived competition. Insecure leaders feel threatened by talented, gifted, or well-liked people, and they make it their mission to belittle those people cleverly.

The Prescription for People Bashing Leaders

“No one has ever made himself look great by showing how small someone else is”

Irvin Himmel

There are two self-serving reasons to stop tearing other people down, whether it be overtly or subtly. First, people just don’t like or trust people who manipulatively bash other people. People bashers tend to think they’re super slick in how they do it, but people quickly catch on to it. Secondly, the absolute fear of God should be a strong motivator to stop tearing others down. Especially if they are godly people. In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote: Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up… (Ephesians 4:29 ESV)”. But Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues with an ominous warning: …do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… (Ephesians 4:30 ESV). To grieve the Holy Spirit is to invite the judgment of God. If nothing else, selfishly avoid God’s wrath by lifting others up rather than tearing them down.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 4:31-32

4. Insecure Leaders Avoid Necessary Risk

An aversion to necessary risks often paralyzes insecure leaders. This one is tricky to spot in a leader because sometimes, risk aversion is wisdom. However, good leaders know risk is unavoidable, healthy, and necessary from time to time. We might call it a leap of faith, or stepping out by faith, or moving forward. Insecure leaders avoid these steps of faith to the detriment of the people depending on them for guidance.

A Cowardly Confederate General

Bright red blood contrasted sharply with the brilliant white snow on a bone-chilling February morning in 1862. Confederate troops under the command of General Gideon Pillow were trapped in Fort Donelson near Dover, Tennessee. General Ulysses S. Grant’s federal troops had them nearly surrounded, and union reinforcements were arriving regularly. General Pillow and his officers knew if they didn’t fight their way out, they would be starved out or frozen out by General Grant.

Federal ironclad boats steamed up the Cumberland River to shell the confederate fort into submission. But southern cannons barraged the ironclads so mercilessly they were forced to retreat. This long-range victory heartened the southern soldiers and emboldened them for battle. The plan was to break through enemy lines and regroup with reinforcements in Nashville. General Pillow realized it would be a bitter fight, but he was shocked to see more union soldiers than expected just over the hill’s crest directly between them and their escape route.

Deafening rebel yells pierced the frosty air as Pillow’s men fiercely charged union lines. After only an hour of fighting, it was almost impossible to see snow because of the crystalizing crimson stains. Miraculously, Pillow’s men busted through federal lines opening up a clear path to Nashville. The breach was only temporary and needed to be exploited by rebel troops quickly. General Pillow needed to give fearless and decisive leadership. But the confederate leader was frozen by more than just the icy winter temperatures. Fear paralyzed General Pillow, causing him to retreat to the fort’s temporary safety rather than continue fighting to ultimate victory.

Pillow’s cowardly decision caused 14,000 confederate troops to be captured and imprisoned by General Grant. Many historians consider this a turning point in the Civil War in favor of the union army. Ironically, General Pillow was able to escape during the night and avoid capture. He left subordinate officers behind to face the wrath of General Grant. This story is a classic example of a fearful, toxically, insecure leader.

The Prescription for Fearful Leaders

“If the fear of loss conquers me, the reality of failure will consume me.”

Michael Dooley

The psalmist said: I sought the Lord, and He heard me and delivered me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4 KJV). The prescription for fearful leadership is God-centered leadership. Leaders who pursue God and strive to follow His direction are delivered from fear and filled with confidence. It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s not. It’s common sense once you understand that God knows the future, and if we know God intimately, He guides us into the future. Great leaders aren’t without worries, but their faith in God overwhelms their fear.

Don’t let fear overwhelm your faith; let faith overwhelm your fear (Psalm 34:4).

5. Insecure Leaders Attack Questioners

Confident leaders encourage and invite questions because they relish the opportunity to cast their vision. Conversely, insecure leaders view most questions as insults to their intelligence and authority. Often, insecure leaders will berate, avoid, or ignore questioners even from those closest to them.

The Prescription for Leaders Who Attack Questioners

“Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.”

Peter Nulty

James 1:19 tells us that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. Even good leaders lose this ability over time if they don’t carefully guard against the mentality of using their authority to silence questions and input from others. But the solution to this problem is simple and self-serving. Leaders who shut down questioners and run over input are robbing themselves of knowledge, and knowledge is power. Allowing others to speak doesn’t mean you have to accept what they say or agree with their advice. If a questioner has a legitimate need for clarification, give it. If a questioner has a real concern, hear it. You can learn a lot from the things people ask and say out loud. Listening gives leaders a distinct advantage in moving forward. Listeners understand trends, anticipate problems, realize needs, inspire loyal followings, and find unusual opportunities.

Leaders who listen understand trends, anticipate problems, realize needs, inspire loyal followings, and find unusual opportunities.

6. Insecure Leaders Rarely Offer Thanks or Congratulations

To the insecure leader, saying thanks is acknowledging they needed help. Giving a compliment distracts from their achievements and spotlights someone else in their way of thinking. They’re uncomfortable with both scenarios, so they rarely say thanks or give genuine compliments. This leaves their team feeling totally unappreciated and disrespected.

The Prescription for Leaders Who Rarely Offer Thanks or Congratulations

“You’ll never be great and ungrateful at the same time.”

Unknown

Learning to express thanks and compliment others when deserved is a sign of strength, not weakness. Rewiring your brain to think this way might be difficult, but it’s necessary. A further benefit of a verbally thankful and complimentary leader is the positive impact on the people around them. Morale is boosted; productivity increases, loyalty skyrockets, and the leader’s visions are carried out faster. Try it, and you’ll see immediate positive results.

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:7 ESV

7. Insecure Leaders Take Credit for Other People’s Work or Ideas

“A strong leader takes blame and gives the credit. A weak leader gives blame and accepts the credit.”

John Wooden

Insecure leaders are more than willing to steal somebody else’s great idea or take credit for others’ accomplishments. Leaders ready to steal credit have allowed their insecurities to turn them into liars and frauds. Any leader that sinks to this level is beyond toxic. They are intentionally venomous and should not be trusted under any circumstances. Run!

The Prescription for Leaders Who Take Credit for Other People’s Work or Ideas

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Harry S. Truman

A leader willing to lie and steal another person’s credit has no other recourse but to repent before God. And the offending leader must make it right with those they have harmed (Matthew 5:23-24). The Apostle James doesn’t mince words when calling out selfishly ambitious people who play games with the truth. You’ll notice in the text below he calls them unspiritual and demonic. Nothing short of spiritual reconciliation with God and those offended will help a fraudulent leader.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James 3:14-18 ESV

8. Insecure Leaders Shoot Down Good Ideas

When insecure leaders are presented with good or even terrific ideas, they often shoot them down (or steal them, as we just covered in the above point). They just can’t stand the thought of someone else having a better or idea or solution. This ultra-selfish leadership style harms everyone because it stifles creativity, productivity, ingenuity, and originality. If a leader always shoots down fantastic ideas without a reasonable explanation, they’re leading from insecurity; however, if they have plausible reasons, they probably do not lead from insecurity.

The Prescription for Leaders Who Shoot Down Good Ideas

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Bernard Baruch

The Bible often speaks of obtaining lots of good advice from wise counselors (Proverbs 11:14, Proverbs 12:15, Proverbs 15:22, Proverbs 20:18) before making a decision. Insecure leaders must break the habit of desiring to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, great leaders understand that any organization is built on the successes and intelligence of everyone involved. Understand that an organization that consistently shoots down really good or even terrific ideas without reason will be mediocre at best.

9. Insecure Leaders Run from Needed Confrontation

Most people don’t enjoy confrontation or uncomfortable moments where they look like the bad guy. They want the glory, not the gloom. But insecure leaders take that mentality to a whole new level. They often delegate confrontational moments to their subordinates because they lack the confidence to face a conflict head-on themselves. Or they simply leave problems unsolved, unconfronted, and unresolved rather than face needed conflict. Confrontation avoidance can significantly harm an organization over time.

The Prescription for Confrontation Avoiding Leaders

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

Ronald Reagan

The goal of all healthy necessary confrontation is to be assertive, not aggressive. At the root of chronic conflict avoidance is the fear of rejection. For many leaders, this is a deeply ingrained fear that’s hard to overcome. But the fear of rejection must be overcome, or it will destroy the leader and the leader’s team. Addressing the fear of confrontation and rejection begins with baby steps. Start by reevaluating self-worth and reimagining outcomes of conflict (many positive things come from necessary conflict).

10. Insecure Leaders are Easily Flattered

A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet.

Proverbs 29:5

Flattery is a lie, masquerading as encouragement, from a selfish motive to manipulate the hearer to achieve the flatterer’s covert purpose. Whether or not flattering words have truth in them, their goal is deception. A leader easily seduced by flattery is foolish and will make unwise decisions. Insecure leaders enjoy the temporary buzz flattery produces because it artificially inflates their wounded egos.

The Prescription for Easily Flattered Leaders

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Norman Vincent Peale

Flattery is the enemy we all love. It feels good going down, but the poison of it doesn’t take long to kick in. That’s why people say flattery is like gum; chew it but don’t swallow it. We shouldn’t believe every good thing we hear about ourselves, nor should we believe every negative thing we hear about ourselves. Learning to overcome flattery’s deceitfulness involves a few paradigm changes: One, learn to value truth over desired truth through prayer. Two, be wary of people who praise excessively. Three, discount those who tear down others to build you up. Four, confront the love of flattery in your own heart and learn to recognize that weakness. When leaders understand their propensity to be manipulated by flattery, they begin to build an immunity to it.