Those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of leading others have never experienced challenges quite like those we face today. Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across our land, we thought, “This is the worst. What else could possibly happen?”
Then the “what else” did happen. In Brunswick, Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man out for a jog, was killed by white vigilantes. In Minneapolis, George Floyd, a black man taken into custody, handcuffed and pinned to the ground, was killed by a white police officer who pressed his knee unrelentingly against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Three other white police officers refused to intervene, ignoring Floyd’s desperate pleas that he could not breathe and the appeals of bystanders only a few feet away.
Crises have a way of exposing the best and the worst leaders. Step back and observe the leadership skills (or lack of them) you’ve observed in others and yourself over the past three months. Which leaders have been able to inspire, unite and motivate? Which ones have confused and divided people, leaving them to flounder in despair?
“The health of the leader’s soul affects – and infects – the entire culture.”
I believe there is one common trait present in all ineffective leaders: emotional insecurity. Insecure leaders become a blight on everything they touch. It doesn’t matter if the organization is a soccer team, church, bank, Fortune 500 corporation or nation. Leadership, which is often both mysterious and invisible, is the art of naming reality, creating a culture and guiding expectations. Confronted by the plagues of coronavirus and racism, our country needs clarity and focus from its leaders, something insecure leaders are incapable of offering.
The health of the leader’s soul affects – and infects – the entire culture. If the leader is insecure, the environment becomes devoid of trust, calling forth the worst, rather than the best, in everyone. As racial tensions mount and demonstrations calling for an end to police brutality and racial injustice grow each day in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd at the hands of police, our country’s civic and religious leaders have the opportunity to calm and unite or frighten and divide.
Stated simply, insecure leaders produce insecurity. They poison all that surrounds them.
Insecure leaders lack a sense of humor. Good leadership requires the ability to laugh at oneself and the incongruities of life. What workplace has not benefited from a good belly laugh? It relieves tension and allows us to admit we don’t have things under control. It’s no accident that some of the world’s greatest leaders know how to laugh, and often at themselves. Poor leaders, soaked in self-doubt, take themselves too seriously, which sadly, makes them more laughable.
Insecure leaders live in fear. Fear of being found out, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of the facts and fear of others. We lead and serve others best when we operate from a calm core.
Insecure leaders crave the approval of others. Any leader – CEO, union organizer, pastor or politician – can become frozen in popularity paralysis. Proverbs 29:25 asserts, “The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that.” Mark it down. Crowd-pleasing disables a leader. In these days of national malaise, I’d love to hear an elected official say, “I’m not sure national polling is on my side and I may lose my next election, but I’m going to do what is right.”
Insecure leaders over-compensate. Leaders sometimes slip into unhealthy default modes: micro-managing, bullying, shouting slogans, bragging, waving a Bible or a flag – anything to make up for feelings of incompetence or irrelevance. A wise person once observed that as the freight train passed through town, he could always distinguish an empty car from a loaded one. The empty one rattled and made all the noise.
Insecure leaders are thin-skinned, so they never benefit from helpful criticism. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, the slightest rebuff becomes huge. Even constructive criticism is perceived as an attack on our self-worth. Defensiveness and paranoia prevent us from hearing the hard truth. Mediocre leaders talk; great leaders listen, even when it stings.
Author and speaker Brian McLaren shares very honestly about his struggle with criticism. As his fame grew, so did the verbal attacks. In The Great Spiritual Migration, he confesses, “My greatest danger lay in how I would react to my critics, and my greatest enemies were the immaturity, pride, fear and insecurity within me. If I were driven by the need to be right – or thought right by others – I would show how little I had experienced the liberation to which I was calling others!”
Insecure leaders spend too much time scapegoating and excuse-making. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Think of sitting Sunday after Sunday under a professional holy man who is constantly asserting his egocentricity by criticizing yours.” Insecurity creates a downward spiral, preventing us from dealing with the real issues within ourselves, others and our organization. Insecure leaders want all the authority and none of the responsibility, so they deflect. Because such posturing requires vast amounts of energy, the leader becomes exhausted and so does the organization, church or country.
At every level, good leadership is about emotional health, and, I believe, spiritual health. For better or worse, who we are on the inside eventually comes tumbling out, especially in times of crisis. Richard Rohr reminds us that what we do not offer up to God for transformation ends up being transmitted to those around us. A leader’s values, character and personality permeate the organization, a reality that is wondrous, sobering and scary all at the same time.
So, leaders, it is vital to do everything you know to do to get healthy. In this moment for our churches, our communities and our nation, the stakes are high.