Updated: Aug 9, 2022
What is an Insecure Leadership Style?
In my role as a professional coach, Agile Team Facilitator, and having held leadership roles at different companies, I have had the benefit of observing people in action. From being part of a team, to individual contributors, and at many levels within an organization, I get to see human behavior within the context of a work environment. What I have realized is leaders who are out of touch with human needs or who lack empathy make horrible people managers. Yes, they can leverage resources, they can execute their deliverables and move objectives forward, but they fuck-up their talent’s morale and do not maintain consistent productivity. They create a workforce of unempowered, impotent, frustrated, and low performing contributors, and frequently lose high-performing talent to the organization’s competitors. They create high turnover and organizational chaos.
I call this leadership style Insecure Leadership. An Insecure Leader refers to a people manager who can produce results but lacks sufficient people skills and empathy needed to maintain high-performance. They are more likely to operate from a top-down, hierarchal leadership approach. In other words, Insecure Leaders deliver pyrrhic victories or results for the organization. They tend to burnout human capital, deplete resource capacity, and do not sustain consistent productivity. Based on my experience and observation of leaders in action, I have identified the below Insecure Leadership traits that are most likely to create low performance in teams:
Manages people through intimidation
Have an authoritative style, border-line bully approach
They don’t take accountability for their team or direct reports’ low performance
Don’t listen to their team, direct reports, mor those they feel are “below” them
Have a closed, “just-do-what-I-say” mindset
Focused on their own success
Biased vision on what should or could be
See the labor force or human capital as something to control
Plays favorites (usually gives more attention to those who will kiss their ass)
Don’t like feedback or to be challenged
Won’t protect their direct reports
Breaks trust with colleagues (frequently throws people under the bus)
Intimated by “their” leadership/manager
Demonstrates poor emotional intelligence
This list is not exhaustive. I developed this list based on coaching notes or meeting notes, team surveys, and common themes or language among those who shared with me they felt unsupported by their direct managers. As such, if three or more of these traits showed up, then that people manager is an Insecure Leader. Furthermore, in reviewing company culture maturity assessments, 360 feedback and performance, coaching leaders, teams, and individual contributors, I have identified patterns to support conceptualizing traits of an Insecure Leader.
For example, one company I consulted with had over 30,000 employees. My role was to help build the company’s culture and improve leadership capabilities. I interviewed managers, individual contributors and site leads for two of the organization’s twelve sites. I facilitated workshops and team coaching for over thirty teams, which consisted of eight or more team members. In surveying and facilitating interventions for teams with low performance, high-turnover and/or low morale, at least three of the above Insecure Leadership traits showed up for the direct manager of those teams. The more traits present, the lower the performance and morale, the higher the pain-points and turnover in those teams. Of course, with Secure Leaders who manage people, when less than 3 of those traits showed up, those teams had better performance, higher morale, and less turn-over, by comparison.
What is a Secure Leader Style?
Of course, if there is an Insecure Leadership style, there is a Secure Leadership style. My work as a coaching professional and Agile Team Facilitator is to help move leaders from the former to the latter by improving leadership security. A Secure Leadership style refers to people managers who are in-tune with human needs and leverage their people skills to deliver on bottom-line objectives. These leaders are sensitive to human behavior (especially when organizational changes impact resilience and resistance) and have the necessary behavioral and technical skills to sustain high-performing teams while meeting business goals. Secure Leaders are more likely to work with their direct reports from a bottom-up or partnership approach, rather than a top-down, hierarchal leadership structure. They empower their teams to be great and leverage that greatness effectively. These leaders can find that sweet spot between the company’s bottom line and what their workforce needs to feel like stakeholders in the company’s mission.
The below are key traits of a Secure Leader. Again, this is not an exhaustive list. The same methodology used to identify Insecure Leadership traits was used to identify Secure Leadership traits.
Has a growth, open mindset
Partners with team members and does not dictate prescribed ways of working
Protects and advocates for their team
Listens to and meaningfully addresses team pain-points
Removes barriers for or with the team
Owns their actions and takes accountability for their role in the team’s shortcomings
Celebrates and acknowledges team wins; gives the team credit for successes
Moves out of their teams’ way when it comes to executing objectives
Trusts their team members and direct reports
Holds space for mistakes and focuses on lessons learned vs. blaming
Willing to work in the trenches with their team, when needed
Provides a north star to help their teams meet business goals or deliverables
Invests in and cares about team members’ personal and professional development
Leverages their leadership and relationship building skills to influence others to impact change
Demonstrates inclusivity, equity, and belonging among team members
Demonstrates emotional intelligence and empathy
Insecure to Secure Leadership Coaching Approach
For those of us in the leadership coaching or capability management spaces, it is important to first remember that leaders are “people too.” All leaders come with conditioned behaviors, like anyone else. As such, Insecure Leadership traits develop through having their behaviors rewarded and/or punished. When a behavior or trait is rewarded or punished, it becomes reinforced—be it beneficially or destructively. In addition, humans are creatures of habit. We tend to automatically express traits that were reinforced to help us cope, problem-solve, avoid experiences, and navigate situations to manage our comfort (or discomfort) levels.
Second, behavior can be unlearned or newly learned. That means, leadership styles can transform or develop overtime. As coaches, we can be instrumental in how this occurs. And companies that invest in building leadership capabilities can use coaching and training to develop Secure Leaders. Below are a few key points that I have used to support and help develop Secure Leadership:
I get to know the company’s overall objectives, mission, vision, and expectations. That way, I can refer to the company’s values or goals as a north star to guide the coaching conversation. Likewise, I can leverage this information to see how the leader’s values and behaviors align with the company’s goals and partner with the leader in creating congruency.
During coaching sessions, I ask questions around the leader’s values, work ethics, and beliefs on how to manage people. Additionally, I get curious on how the leader perceives their current behaviors or leadership presence, how their leadership style support or counter team performance, what their future state behaviors can look like, areas of improvement or lessons learned, and what is their vision is for the further development of their team. This gives me an understanding on what ideals their leadership style is formed.
I often administer 360 feedback, strength assessments, prior performance reviews and outcomes as objective measures of current leadership style or people skills. I typically share and explore feedback with the leader to identify ways to leverage their strengths to address learning opportunities, and to bring awareness towards areas of behavior and leadership traits unknown to the leader.
I hold space for grace and growth while acknowledging what they are doing well as a leader. Likewise, I use verbal “ways to praise” as a reward for when the leader uses or experiments with Secure Leadership traits.
I often share resources, such as case studies, articles, videos, exercises/activities, podcasts, and books to help with creating mind shifts and offering new perspectives the leader can reflect on and experiment with as we partner in our coaching sessions.
Finally, as you embark on a coaching or training partnership with organizations and leaders, remember, Secure Leadership development is a marathon and not a sprint. Behavior change takes time. It happens incrementally, gradually, and with missteps until the traits stick and become a new habit. Level set this expectation with all stakeholders and be sure to include metrics to monitor and manage Secure leadership capabilities and maturity.