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Insecurity in Leadership

He was a fledgling entrepreneur, with a few employees, a product, and a dream.  Asked how he was handling the stresses of start-up, he struggled valiantly to do the “Optimism” thing.  But another couple of questions and the self-doubts came tumbling out.  He’d been hesitant to acknowledge his anxieties, because, he said sheepishly, leaders don’t have doubts!  As I dissuaded him of that illusion, he seemed amazed.  “Really?  You mean even seasoned leaders?”  Yes, I assured him, though they often are more adept at pretense!

In a recent conversation with a colleague, he summed up the mood of the leaders he’s encountering these days:  “They’re scared to death and full of doubt!  They tend to minimize or discount what they do know, and maximize or emphasize what they don’t know!”  What is even more disempowering, we agreed, is that they burden themselves with the ancient admonition, “Never let `em see you sweat!”

What a lethal combination – insecurity and isolation.  No wonder this new entrepreneur thought he was the only one who experienced trepidation, self-doubt, and so many other flavors of anxiety.

I’ve been reading biographies of outstanding leaders lately, including those highlighted in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”; McCullough’s masterful “John Adams”; and Martin Luther King’s autobiography.  I’m struck by a universal experience of these accomplished, often heroic figures: They were all utterly riddled at times with self-doubt, vacillation, and insecurity.  And these anxieties occurred not just a few times, but on a routine basis.  For some, like John Adams, these experiences could dominate his spirit for months at a time.

What helps to find one’s footing again in such challenging periods?

1.  Awareness and Acceptance

Emotional self-awareness is vital.  If we’re operating anywhere near our potential, then an occasional wave of insecurity is inevitable.  In fact, an occasional tidal wave is predictable!  The lack of awareness of those emotions, and/or the denial of them, is what traps leaders.  As in the opening story, leaders seem to carry an inhibiting (if unconscious) message:  “I shouldn’t feel that way.”  If such emotions remain unnoticed and unacknowledged, they will inevitably infect our thought and decision-making processes.  This is why so much is being written now about the leadership skill of emotional self-awareness.  It’s the awareness that clears the way for choicefulness, for wisdom, and for creativity.  Unacknowledged emotion loads the internal airwaves with static.

The awareness, though, must be accompanied by a gentle acceptance.  The emotions triggered in us are programmed early and at depth.  Our automatic emotional responses are determined at a very early age.  Recent research is indicating that as much as 90% of our automatic responses are set by the age of five!  So to judge ourselves for certain emotions, or to engage in an effort to eradicate, root out, crush those emotions, is in itself, anxiety-provoking.  So the first helpful response to anxiety is an acceptance of its occurrence.  Calm response allows the more debilitating emotions to dissipate.  By contrast, efforts to suppress them actually strengthen their power over our thinking.  Zen Buddhists use an image of befriending these emotions!

2.  Develop perspective and engage the cortex

When emotions are flooding our internal systems, we find it difficult to think.  The highly developed and powerful portion of the brain which is programmed for emotions can dominate our internal processes if unchecked.  It is possible, over time, with intentional effort, to lessen this emotional intensity.  In technical terms, we need to engage the pre-frontal cortex, where thinking takes place.  As Daniel Papero, Ph.D., suggests, we need to “lean into the problem”.  In other words, begin to list the facts of the situation, identify options, brainstorm resources, and so on.

At other times when insecurity is dampening our spirit, an intentional break may serve to regain perspective – a period in which we deliberately distance ourselves from the immediacy of the issues we face.  Vacations can serve the purpose, but I may need a half-day getaway sooner!  In this perspective space, we can reclaim vision, optimism, intuition, instinct, spirit, soul.  What is it that you reclaim when you’re quieting a flood of emotion?  What do you call that?  Knowing this internal resource by name can be immensely helpful in locating and engaging it.

3.  Develop objective sounding boards

Finally, since insecurity can be cunning, baffling and powerful influences on our view of reality, outside, objective resources are invaluable.

This hunger in business owners and CEO’s to connect somewhere and with someone outside their immediate circle is satisfied by TEC groups, CEO Roundtables, coaches, and mentors.  These resources all require the humility to say “I don’t know all the answers.  I know I can lose sight of my own values and vision.  And I get shaky at times!”  These resources can provide a sanity check, reality check, ego check and emotion check.  Of course, they work only to the extent that the leader is willing to be real, vulnerable and open.  And they are most effective when the others provide not answers, but provocative questions and feedback.


  • Who helps you think?
  • Who is there who has no stake in the outcomes of your decisions, but can help you sort through confusion?
  • Who can ask probing, insightful questions?
  • Who is self-liberated enough to be honest with you as a mirror and sounding board?

If your vision of leadership is at all broad and challenging, the experience of insecurity is inevitable.  What distinguishes great leaders from good leaders is the ability to manage themselves well in those times.

That fledgling entrepreneur in the story?  He just needed to know that those occasional waves of trepidation were normal.  Armed with a few keys on how to manage himself when they occurred, he’s humming along!

(For related ideas and suggestions, see “Ignorance as a Leadership Virtue” in the article archives at

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