Insecurity in leadership


In a recent conversation with a colleague, she summed up the mood of the leaders she is encountering these days:  “They are scared to death and full of doubt!  They tend to minimize or discount what they do know, and maximize or emphasize what they do not 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 she was the only one who experienced trepidation, self-doubt, and so many other flavors of anxiety.

I have 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 am 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.

Awareness and Acceptance

Emotional self-awareness is vital.  If we are 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 should not 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 is 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!

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 are 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.

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 do not 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. So:

  • 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?  You 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 is humming along!

View as PDF


The Have I Got A Problem website is a free online resource to help people better understand any issues or concerns they may have about mental health or addiction. The website includes resources specifically focused to; general Mental Health, Depression, Stress, Anxiety, Insecurities, Self-harm Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Anger Management, Eating Disorders, Coping, general Addiction, Alcohol, Smoking, Gambling, Drugs, Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana (Cannabis) Ecstasy, PCP, Mephedrone, Ketamine & Crystal Meth.

The site was created to give the public information to help them understand mental health and addiction issues and to assist people in making better informed decisions about their life and personal choices. was created and is run by 'Advising Communities’, which is a UK registered charity (Charity No. 1061055)


"I'm even insecure about being optimistic."


MoreSend us your Quotes

Tips & Hints

  • Self Awareness

    Ask yourself what triggers your feeling of insecurity? Whether it is fear of loss, pain, embarrassment or rejection, find out what it i...
  • Laugh

    Laughter is the best medicine for the human condition. When you laugh your mood lightens up and it is said to help improve the immune s...
  • List your fears

    List your fears and conquer them one by one. Feel insecure when you are presenting? Take up a public speaking class. Fear of talking to...
  • Journal

    Write it down! Use a journal to record the successes you have in life. Record the mini successes you have achieved and refer back to it...
  • Set Goals

    Lack of direction in life can lead to insecurity. You’ll wonder what your purpose is in life and lower your self-esteem. By regularly...
  • More Tips & Hints