Insecurity doesn’t always manifest itself in the same way. For many people, it looks like anxiety, nervousness, or timidity. But did you know that arrogance, domineering, and short-temperedness are also signs of insecurity? (Both timidity and domination have at their roots a concern about control.)
It is worth exploring, then, how closely related opposite character traits or behavioral characteristics may actually be. The following list of leadership characteristics contains four sets of two contrasting signs, all of which—counterintuitive though it may seem—reveal insecurity.
How do you know when a leader in your church, office, or organization is showing deeper insecurity?
1. An insecure leader may stay competitive about other churches or organizations,
2. An insecure leader may be jealous/fearful of other churches or organizations.
Some leaders try to stay in competition with those who ought to be seen as partners or complements to Christ’s mission in their communities. They are always pointing out the flaws of other churches, the defificiencies of their leaders, touting their own successes against the others’ failures as a sign of how “we’re doing it right.”
Other leaders see their own setbacks and disappointments in contrast to the successes of other churches and develop an inferiority complex that only feeds their jealousy or fear of other churches “horning in” on their territory or “sucking up” all their resources or stealing their people.
The problem with both of these approaches to other churches—both showboating pride and envious disgruntlement—is that both other churches and their leaders as competition, as rivals for market share, rather than as partners in kingdom mission. A leader secure in the gospel understands that no kingdom is bigger than Christ’s, and that a win for any church is a win for Jesus and thus a win for all.
3. An insecure leader belittles other leaders in their own organization,
4. An insecure leader is paranoid about other leaders in their own organization.
I attended a church once that went through a different youth pastor every year, a different young adult pastor about as often, and a string of ever-rotating teaching pastors. I later discovered it was because the lead pastor was so insecure, as soon as he began to sense that some other leader or other ministry was growing in popularity, he saw them as a threat to himself and the weekend service and got rid of them. This power move is very much a mark of real insecurity.
And we see this insecurity in the two contrasting dysfunctions of leaders worried about the influence or development of other leaders around them. Whenever one is constantly insulting, poking, or even sarcastically digging at another leader, it is likely a sign of insecurity. The other leader may even be an organizational inferior, but if the primary leader is uncomfortable by their influence and perceives it as a cost to his own, you may find him finding ways to take the subordinate “down a few notches.”
But the same is true not just of the power move of belittling but the passive move of paranoia. Secure leaders don’t worry about the influence achieved or the accolades earned by other leaders, whether peers or employees. They know a win for a leader is a win for the team. They don’t see the gifts, successes, or recognition of other leaders as a threat, because they have the confidence of Christ’s gospel.
5. An insecure leader micro-manages his team,
6. An insecure leader is passive with his team.
Both overbearing micro-management and hands-off passivity, while behavioral opposites, are signs of insecure leadership. How?
Micro-management is how a leader shows he doesn’t trust his team to operate in their own gifts and aptitudes—and, interestingly enough, it also shows how a leader doesn’t his trust his own decisions in enlisting and organizing a team competent enough to carry out the tasks before them. If you don’t trust your team to perform well, it’s because ultimately you doubt your own ability to choose the right people.
I remember a few times hearing some complaints from parents about youth leaders. The complaints had nothing to do with bad teaching or immoral behavior or even immaturity. The complaints were solely about logistical decisions and the like.
As a parent of youth, I am sympathetic to the desire that our students receive top-quality ministry in the church. As a pastor, however, I am sympathetic to the reality that ministers are often subject to an inordinate amount of advice and acrimony, the majority of which should never be voiced. So I refused to take these complaints to the youth leader. It was not my job to micro-manage him. I didn’t want to put anyone in any position of responsibility without authority over their responsibilities. I wanted to trust them, but also my (and the church’s) original affirmation of them as a leader. Do we trust them? That was the bottom line. I wanted to trust them until they gave me a good reason not to. Just as I want the same for me.
On the other hand, if I never counseled the leaders under me, never coached them, directed them, gave them insight, let my influence roll downhill, and so on, I am doing them an equally awful disservice. Leaders who are passive around their teams are ineffective and, by definition, failures as leaders, because the essence of leadership is influence. A passive leader is in a sense a contradiction in terms, or they are at least a leader who is a leader in name only. Leaders hide behind their titles, operating as figureheads, when they fail to engage those around them, to ask for feedback and input, to initiate collaboration, or to share both the burdens and privileges of their position. This is a sure sign of insecurity because it means the leader doesn’t trust other leaders to help and because the leader fears giving up a sense of control or recognition.
7. An insecure leader is self-reverential,
8. An insecure leader is self-pitying.
This is perhaps the starkest contrast. Some leaders like themselves way too much, enjoy their own notoriety too much, like to see themselves in the spotlight too much, and practically think of themselves in the third person. Other leaders are always putting themselves down, hobbling their own influence with over-sharing transparency, undercutting their own self-respect with pathological self-deprecation, or simply the leadership equivalent of Debbie Downer.
Both extremes are signs of insecurity, because the self-reverential leader craves the spotlight as a panacea to his own fear of insignificance and the self-pitying leader is being defensive to self-protect against his own fear of insignificance. Oddly enough, both behavioral extremes are extremely self-centered. We’ve probably all encountered the sad-sack character in small groups or Sunday school classes who seems to suck up all the emotional and relational energy of the entire group every week with their problems or fears. This is as much a prideful self-centering as the arrogant jerk who’s always jockeying for attention. And it is just as much a show of insecurity.
So what’s the antidote? How do we normalize our leadership away from extremes? Supernaturally, it begins with a re-centering of our identity around Christ. Only the security we find in his gospel—where sinners are justified freely forever, united to Christ to be seated with him in the heavenly places in every moment, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey God and bear godly fruit—can help us battle the insecurities of the flesh, whether they manifest themselves in aggression or passivity, arrogance or false humility.
The cure for insecure leadership is the leadership of Jesus.