To All of the Insecure Leaders — thank you

“I don’t even really need a team. I could easily do every job in this department if I had more time.”

Those were the first words spoken to me by a former boss. I should’ve run far, far away and dodged a bullet. But alas, I did not. Instead, I’ll steal from one of my favorite shows, Sex and the City: could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.

Insecure leaders are nothing new. But it’s pretty obvious when you come across one. You immediately start to feel a dark cloud roll over and obliterate your previously sunny day. Insecure leaders talk obsessively about how amazing they are, worry about insignificant things, and spin the crap out of every little situation to make themselves look better. Sound familiar? Congratulations, you’re under an insecure leader.

Ultimately, the narcissism of insecure leaders fills you with a slew of self-doubt you never even knew you had. That self-doubt crap creeps up out of nowhere to the point where you’re asking random strangers if your sexy go-to skirt makes you look fat. (Or was that just me?)

How was I supposed to react to my former boss above who oh-so-casually stated that she didn’t even really need her team? Apologize for inconveniencing her? Drink a shot of tequila to drown my sorrows? Quit? Only the crazy boss gods shall know. Sadly, the boss above is one of many insecure leaders I’ve come across throughout my career. The best part about an insecure leader, though? Come on, there’s always a silver lining! Insecure leaders are a beautiful thing. They make you grateful for all the strong and secure leaders. So, to all of the insecure leaders of the universe — thank you. I’m a kinder and stronger leader because of you.

Below are five signs you’re working for an insecure leader. If you find yourself under one, take a deep breath, update your resume, and learn how not to be that kind of leader.

1. Obsessive bragging. Be wary of leaders who obsessively brag about themselves. They’re obviously insecure. You’ll be in a one-on-one meeting with him or her, and before you know it, half the meeting has been spent listening to how wonderful he or she is. Strong leaders don’t need to brag obsessively about themselves. Instead, strong leaders brag obsessively about their team. They brag about YOU. They understand they’d be nothing without their team — and they make that BIG fact known.

2. Stupid nitpicking. Watch out for leaders who nitpick about stuff that honestly doesn’t matter. I once had a leader get upset because I used the word “backlog” in an email. I had let the nitpicking leader know that there was a “backlog of about five articles” waiting to be posted to our blog. She took everyone off the chain (except the lazy individual who had yet to post the five articles to the blog) and lectured me (yes, with said lazy person still on the email chain) about how hurtful and unnecessary the word “backlog” was. Hurtful? What is this… the Maury Povich Show? Backlog felt like a pretty professional term to me. The nitpicking leader was deflecting from the real problem: A backlog of five articles meant wasted time and money. A strong leader would’ve found a backlog of five articles to be absolutely unacceptable and demanded the team work together to fix ASAP. Insecure leaders refuse to address problems head on, though. Instead, the backlog nitpicker wanted me to feel self-doubt about speaking up and identifying a problem in hopes I wouldn’t ever do it again in the future. Silence is bliss to insecure leaders. If you find yourself in a similar situation, stay calm, do your job, and don’t lose confidence… as you search for a new job.

3. Surrounded by sycophants. You know those teams… the leader has surrounded him-or herself with nothing but people who seem to have zero clue about how to lead a team, let alone do their job. That’s because insecure leaders don’t want to lead and be surrounded by smart people, especially people who might be smarter than they are. It makes them nervous. They don’t want to be outperformed or outdone. Russell Simmons said it best, “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” Strong leaders do just that. Look for leaders who don’t mind if your strengths outshine theirs.

4. Create a culture of fear. If you find yourself in a situation where you are darned if you do and darned if you don’t, you are most likely part of a culture of fear. Insecure leaders are hot and cold to their employees so they’re always unsure of where they stand or how to act. Whenever I’ve been part of a team with an insecure leader, I hear things like “Well, how will so-and-so react?” … or “What if our leader gets upset?” … or “I’m scared to speak up.” The team is nervous to do anything out of a fear of retaliation. Cultures of fear do nothing for organizations except make good people quit. Strong leaders are direct and let you know where you stand at all times. You always know what success looks like. They create a culture of transparency and refuse to let fear get in the way of great results.

5. Appearances are everything. Insecure leaders are all about that spin. And only care about appearances. Perception is everything to them. Reality is just a word they barely recognize anymore. I was under a department leader once who insisted on holding monthly meetings to discuss how much their leadership team loved and trusted one another. It was imperative that everyone on that leader’s team acted like they were best friends with their peers when anyone with a pulse could tell they were not. All this did was force the leadership team to be passive-aggressive to one another. They couldn’t have transparent conversations with each other out of fear for how the leader would react. Secure leaders know that people don’t need to be good friends in order to be good teammates. It’s not even that great of an idea to be friends with co-workers anyways. Secure leaders want results — and don’t force a fake facade on the team to get ’em.

Believe it or not, insecure leaders are a blessing. They feel more like a root canal when you’re under them, but you learn just as much from the bad leaders as you do from the good ones. So, once again, to all of the insecure leaders I’ve experienced — thank you. You’ve made me a better person and leader. I love to hire people smarter than me, and empower them to try new things and make mistakes. I always encourage my team to speak freely by leading with transparency. Who would ever want to be an insecure leader — when being a strong leader is so much more fun.

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