The Tragedy of Insecurity in Leadership

“It’s a reflection on them and their insecurity…not on you.” Sadly, I must have said this ten times this week to people I care about.

It wasn’t in reference to Fortune 500 leaders or to any of the inspirational CEOs I work with. Instead, it was in reference to the “everyday leaders” in our lives; those we are supposed to be able to trust. A coach from a local high school who was fired from our high school many years ago and has held a grudge, so much so that he is trying to keep our best students from competing against his in a debate tournament. Another local coach who lost years ago in an important debate round to our coach – when they were teenagers for goodness sake, and who is doing the same thing to our team. A friend whose father embarrassed him miserably in a toast at his birthday party for “not following in his footsteps” and then put down his grandchild by dismissing her success.

Coaches, directors, parents, grandparents. The people we believe understand the importance of the examples they set every day in our lives and the lives of our children, friends and family members. We expect them to put aside their personal issues and rise to the occasion that their leadership demands.

And so often recently I see them failing us.

As I am not them, I can only guess what’s at the core of their bitterness, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet: insecurity. Insecurity blossoms when we hold on to a failure or loss that we experience and then internalize as “unworthiness.” We think we’re unworthy of success or respect, of that raise or promotion, or worse, of love. Instead of understanding the failure or loss and forgiving others and ourselves in order to move through it and past it, we hold it and all of its toxicity. This toxicity means doubt and fear are leaking into our minds and bodies, and sometimes we take this out on others, those whom we are meant to be leading and motivating and inspiring.

As humans we have a very clear set of needs, delineated beautifully by Maslow:

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs


We can all see how insecurity can prevent every level of need from being met. I love how this graphic is very clear at the bottom: “Access to the higher levels requires satisfaction in the lower level needs.” We cannot become fully actualized if our lower level needs, including love and belonging and self-esteem are not being met. And sometimes, when we subconsciously recognize this, we try to bring others down with us rather than doing the work to raise ourselves up.

As humans, this is understandable but so sad. As leaders, this can be disastrous for everyone around us.

Let’s agree that as leaders we’ll work on ourselves in order to bring our fully actualized selves not only to our formal leadership roles, but to all the “everyday” roles we play as well. It’s the best way to honor ourselves, our followers, those who look up to us, and those we truly love.


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  1. This is very timely post considering several discussions I had last week and today. Both the graphic and your post clarifies the WHY…….. Your final paragraph gives us definite direction, which if we all take to heart will alleviate much of the “destructive” insecurity making the rounds. Thanks Lisa, as always a great and helpful post.
    CASUDI´s last blog post ..What is Your Original Evergreen Experience?

    • I appreciate this, Caroline! Thank you so much for letting me know it’s a topic that’s been on your mind, and that this post is helpful to you in some way! All the best and thank you for being here. :)

  2. Lisa,

    This is a great post. I have found that most people that are on a power trip or have a huge ego, feel that way because they have insecurity at some level or another. Many times people get into a position of leadership more quickly than they should because they are not ready. When that happens, they aren’t secure in their leadership and try to hide their weaknesses. They are afraid of looking weak in front of people so they try to overcompensate by dominating everyone.

    Rather than be humble and admit weakness, they dominate. Ultimately, insecurity can cause the downfall of the leaders.

    Thanks for the great post!
    Brandon Jones´s last blog post ..Maintain Balance In Social Media!

    • Thank you so much, Brandon, and excellent insights! It all starts with knowing ourselves and being honest with ourselves and others, right? Thank you so much for taking the time to share your own experiences here, I sincerely appreciate it!

  3. Brian Madden says:

    Thanks for an excellent article Lisa. I was passed for a promotion more than a year ago that I should have gotten. The resentment and toxicity prevented me from getting a promotion the last round. I have read your article and will print it and use as a reference. I greatly appreciate the eye opening you have given me.

    • Brian, I’m so honored to know you will be using the post as a resource! Honor yourself by releasing the toxicity that is holding you back. All the best of luck to you!

  4. Wayne Spragge Ph.D. Psych says:

    I read this article with pleasant surprise and confusion.

    I agree that there is a real need to develop and change the behaivours / attitudes of those who lead be they with children, adults or in corporations. The problem and thus my confusion is why would they embark on such a challenging personal journey when the vast majority of companies and organizations not only tolerate their bad behaviour they reward them financially and promote them.

    Where is the source of motivation?

    Is it that they do not realize how they behave or the impact on others, my experiences as an organizational change specialist and Psychologist tells me that is not the truth? They like all humans like their power, many like the fact that others fear them and thus give them very wide opportunities.

    I am sure that you are familiar with Robert I. Sutton’s, No Asshole Rule article in the Harvard Business Review and the movement that it has spawned. Here is a situation where corporations have assessed the impact of bad leadership behaviours and purposely set out to change their workplace cultures i.e. the motivation to change factor.

    Now if we can just blend your orientation which is one that I support into corporate culture with Sutton’s motivational strategy then we could go back to liking Mondays, feeling good about work and structured social organizations and how we evaluate our own behaviours.
    Wayne Spragge Ph.D.
    [email protected]

    • Wayne, it’s precisely because of what you describe that the motivation for this journey must come from within. No one else can give us the power to self-actualize, or to be happy. Everything starts with knowing, accepting, forgiving and loving ourselves. Some people may enjoy the power you describe, and the fact that others fear them, but generally speaking from being around some of these folks, they are internally miserable and feel very unloved. They are stuck way at the bottom of the pyramid while pretending they’re at the top. All the more reason I started this post with the reminder I give others who must deal with these people…their behavior is not a reflection on (my friend/loved one), it’s a reflection on them. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts here – I genuinely appreciate it!

  5. Steve Stutzman says:

    Lisa, you said that as leaders this can be disastrous for everyone around us. In my opinion the real tragedy is that every person is a leader in one way or another to someone, so the disastrous effects you speak of are multiplied out in our daily lives in ways that few people realize. Every individual is responsible to find forgiveness and healing or the ills of our culture will continue to grow. Bitterness has far reaching effects. Forgiveness reaches farther.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Steve! And not just forgiveness – forgiving and forgetting instead of holding onto the toxicity. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, I sincerely appreciate it!

  6. Another important article for all–all humans. I would add that self-actualization is usually presented as a stage in life to aspire to—probably later life after primary needs are met. I have discovered, however, working with children and other humans, that self-actualization can be achieved in moments at any time in a person’s life.
    A corollary to this is that every moment is an opportunity to meet or (better yet) transcend an unmet “lower” need. Adults cannot repair past unworthiness, but they can nonetheless, take on a new challenge in a new way and thus metabolize what is sticking in their craw.
    I love your stuff.
    Rick Ackerly´s last blog post ..1st Grade Teacher Shows How to Design an Instant Learning Organization

  7. This is good stuff. There are a couple of other dimensions, however:
    1) There is a basic human need that Maslow missed: the need to make a difference (
    and this need to make a difference points to the fact that his dynamic you point to (feeling unworthy) would be less prevelant if our culture understood leadership differently:
    Each of us unworthy selves, can nonetheless, connect with others and make a difference. Those who are not in leadership positions, can be leaders to the leaders, too.
    Rick Ackerly´s last blog post ..Lost


  1. […] executives, and managers, are both leaders and teachers. Their goal should be to help their team get rid of their insecurities with phrases like “I assume” and “I […]

  2. […] executives, and managers, are both leaders and teachers. Their goal should be to help their team get rid of their insecurities with phrases like “I assume” and “I […]

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