The Domino Effect of Insecure Leaders

Insecure leaders are like fireworks with a lit fuse. It’s only a matter of time until they explode, and when they do, they hurt everyone close to them.  ~The John Maxwell Company

Confident or insecure—sometimes it can be a fine line between the two. But once a leader has crossed over from confident to insecure the dominoes begin to fall, quickly. Over the years of consulting I’ve observed a pattern. When some people are elevated into leadership positions, their insecurities take over and while they think they are demonstrating confidence, that’s not what those on the receiving end see or feel.

I took a few minutes to research what others have experienced in comparison to my own encounters with leaders who are insecure. Here are four questions that seem to be a common perspective.

How do you handle conflict?

Are you going to an extreme? In other words, are you avoiding conflict by being passive-aggressive? Or, are you going to the other extreme and do you see every scenario as a potential conflict? As Sam Luce said in his blog post 5 Signs You Might Be an Insecure Leader, “They are either too soft and squishy or harsh and uncaring. Secure leaders handle conflict with truth and grace working together, because relationships matter more than being right.”

Do you overcompensate?

Jeanne Sahadi in CNNMoney said it well. “Insecurity can be disguised by bullying, arrogance, or power-mongering.” Do you believe that you are superior? Is your own self-importance taking a priority over building relationships? Is your title more important to you than letting others see your authentic self? If you said yes to any of these questions, you may be overcompensating.

Are you hiding in your office?

I like this one because it’s kind of obvious. I’ve seen leaders almost literally circle their wagons by bringing their direct reports as physically close as possible and even putting up physical walls or doors to make it more difficult for employees to physically reach them. These leaders always seem to have so much work to do that they just don’t have the time to get out of their office and engage with employees. This question isn’t metaphorical, it’s literal, are you hiding in your office?

Are you respectful of others?

Respect—I love that word because it can cover so much territory. Everything from not helping others grow, being a know-it-all, surrounding yourself with people you can control, considering anyone who disagrees with you “disloyal,” etc. Simply put, the word respect means: admiration, high opinion, reverence, value, esteem. Respect is not the absence of treating people poorly; it’s a word packed full of intentionality and deliberate behavior. Are you respectful of others?

Is your confidence on solid ground or are you slipping toward insecurity? We all slip now and then, but catching yourself is the first step to stop the domino effect of insecurity.

Want to get your dissertation done faster?

If you’re reading this, then I’m guessing that the headline got your attention. I don’t know anyone who’s working on a dissertation who wouldn’t like to get it done faster. It’s an arduous undertaking.

Here’s the secret.

So, you might not like the answer. It’s simple. Work on your dissertation. Every. Day.

This is something I discovered personally through trial and error. I would block off chunks of time – a weekend, a couple of evenings, etc. But my progress seemed so very slow. After a few months of sluggish headway, I realized that I spent a good portion of my dedicated time revisiting and “catching up” on what I had completed during my last chunk of time.

I needed to find a flow to keep the momentum going.

That’s when I decided to try working on my dissertation every day. Knowing that on some days that might only be 15 minutes and on other days it could be six hours. While it took a great deal of discipline to create this habit, I also felt as if I had stumbled upon a goldmine.

What to do in 15 minutes?

If I only had 15 minutes what could I do? I could always spend 15 minutes searching for more sources on a specific topic. If I had folder full of articles and other resources, I could spend 15 minutes scanning one of the articles and highlighting potential quotes. I could take a few minutes to cleanup my growing reference list and make sure I was adhering to APA style (the style required by my program).

When I started to see my progress it fueled my fire! Even though it’s been a number of years, I can still remember traveling for work to San Jose, CA. What a wonderful city to visit. But I chose to spend the evening in my hotel room, glued to my laptop, researching and organizing sources. Even more amazing, I didn’t mind, because I could finally see real progress! I was addicted to the momentum my daily routine had created.

Now you could easily say, that worked for you, but I can’t imagine working on my dissertation every day. I too wondered if I was an outlier and had created my own crazy strategy. I’ve discovered just the opposite. As I read books, articles, and blog posts from other dissertation coaches, I read the very same advice. Work on your dissertation every day.

If I were to do this again (and no, I have no plans for a second dissertation), I would likely take it up a notch. I would not only work on it every day, I would also schedule time on my calendar and identify exactly what I want to accomplish during that time. I might write something like secure five sources supporting my overarching theory of adult education, or read three articles in my lifelong learning & leadership folder and highlight the potential quotes.

Get even faster!

Not only would this let me see my progress in more detail. It would significantly increase the likelihood that I would actually do it! Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson said, “When people engage in the right kind of planning, their success rates go up on average between 200 and 300 percent.” Putting very specific tasks that you can complete in that time frame on your calendar is part of that “right kind of planning.”

So, work on your dissertation. Every. Day. Put your specific tasks on your calendar. Watch your progress accelerate before your eyes. Get your dissertation done faster!

To gain focus, could you burn the ship?

Focus is often a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do. ~John Carmack


How many times have I said, “I’m going to really focus my attention, so here’s what I am going to do”? I’ve got it backwards!

William James, my favorite philosopher, said “Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

I especially like that last sentence, “It implies a withdrawal from some things…”

When I’m facilitating strategic planning, one of the things I frequently ask is “what are you going to stop doing? Or, what are you not going to do?” I tend to get surprised looks because most people don’t think about identifying what they are not going to do as something strategic.

But there’s nothing like identifying what you are not going to do to really bring things into focus. (In my opinion, focus is what strategy is all about.)

Be intentional, not reactive.

Focus is about being intentional or deliberate, not reactive. If you haven’t decided what you are not going to do, then what’s keeping you from reacting to things that will take you off focus?

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, said “An organization’s strategy represents the desired pattern of organizational attention, what every unit should share a degree of focus on, each in its particular way. A given strategy makes choices about what to ignore and what matters: Market share or profit? Current competitors or potential ones? Which new technologies? When leaders choose strategy, they are guiding attention.”

Burn the ships.

Abraham Zaleznik (who was a leading scholar and teacher in the field of organizational psychodynamics) said, “Keep focused on the substantive issues. To make a decision means having to go through one door and closing all others.”

Going through one door and closing all others reminded me of the story of Cortes and the burning of his ships. In 1519, Hernan Cortes arrived in the New World with 600 men. Upon arrival, destroyed his ships. He wanted to send the message that there is no turning back. In two years, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire.

Nothing like “burning the ships” to communicate with undeniable clarity what you will not do.

Whether you close doors or burn ships, you and those you lead can achieve significant focus by deciding what things you are not going to do.

Best Dissertation Advice I Received

It’s been more than 17 years since I completed my doctorate and I still remember the dissertation advice that changed both my mindset and my topic.

I was one of those doctoral candidates who was going to change the world with my dissertation research. I was going to “prove” a better approach to leadership. I had this specific experimental research mapped out in my head as I traveled to attend my last intensive class before I could work exclusively on my dissertation.

It’s now been a number of years and I don’t even recall the professor’s name, but to this day I still remember exactly what he said about choosing a dissertation topic. He said, “Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then, go change the world.” He described how many of the doctoral candidates he had worked with over the years were enthusiastic to change the world. However, they picked a topic and research methodology that was so laborious and would extend over such a long period of time, that they never finished. They became an ABD (all-but-dissertation).

Getting the air sucked out of my research idea…

As he spoke, I felt the air being sucked out of my grandiose research idea. I tried to convince myself that I was the exception. After all, I had a master’s degree that focused on research (marketing research) and I had conducted many research studies for universities. I could do this.

As I flew home following the intensive class, I had a come-to-Jesus-moment with myself. I thought long and hard about what he said, “Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then go change the world.” I decided I should take his advice. On the plane home I began to think of an entirely new direction for my dissertation born out of an entirely new mindset – “get it done.”

Now, more than 17 years later, I am still incredibly grateful for that advice. It’s proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. Not only did I get my dissertation completed in a year’s time, my career since that time has evolved out of my dissertation! Something I had not expected when I chose the path of least resistance – pick something you know you can get done.

Criteria for Selecting a Topic

Carol Roberts and Laura Hyatt, authors of The Dissertation Journey (Third Edition, Corwin, 2019) provide several criteria for selecting a dissertation topic, here are a few:

  • It has to hold your interest for a long time
  • Must be manageable in size
  • It must be doable within your time frame and budget
  • It has to have obtainable data

Where to Find Topic Possibilities

With that in mind, here are a few questions I would suggest to help uncover topic possibilities.

  • Would taking a deep dive into something related to your current professional work hold your interest?
  • What have you read recently that got you energized or excited?
  • Download a few published dissertations in your field of study. Skip to the section, “Recommendations for Further Research.” Do any of the recommendations strike you as fascinating or intriguing?
  • Throughout your doctoral coursework, what papers did you write that seemed to come more easily because you were so engrossed in the topic? What else about that topic would you like to know?

Pick a topic that you know you can get done. Then, go change the world.”

Is your organization designed for scarcity?

Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st. ~David S. Rose

One of the many free venues of entertainment in Chicago is eavesdropping on conversations while standing on the “L” platform waiting for the train to arrive. Last week I couldn’t help but smile as I listened to two young men enthusiastically discuss how organizations have changed. They commented on a number of organizations that have grown, exponentially, in a very short period of time.

One of those organizations that is mentioned frequently in conversations about rapid change is Airbnb. Salim Ismail in his book Exponential Organizations provides this background on Airbnb. “A company that leverages users’ extra bedrooms. Founded in 2008, Airbnb currently has 1,324 employees and operates 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities. However, Airbnb owns no physical assets and is worth almost $10 billion. That’s more than the value of Hyatt Hotels, which has 45,000 employees spread across 549 properties.”

Organized to Manage Scarcity

Ismail also says, “Our organizational structures have evolved to manage scarcity. The concept of ownership works well for scarcity, but accessing or sharing works better in an abundant, information-based world. The information-based world is now moving exponentially. However, our organizational structures are still very linear (especially large ones).”

Now, some of you might be thinking, my organization is not an “internet” company like Airbnb so none of this applies to me/us. Well, I think that’s the point. Are you structured to manage scarcity?

Here are two examples to consider. In a scarcity structure you have heroic leaders, employees, and process supervisors. An abundant structure has vital people who fulfill their role. Scarcity uses “job titles,” abundance relies on “dynamic roles.”

Organized to Manage Abundance

It’s hard for me to think of an industry or sector that the idea of being designed for abundance could not apply. Manufacturing (IoT – Internet of Things), healthcare (integrated healthcare), education (online competency-based education), churches (online churches).

If you’re still having a hard time getting your head around abundance, consider this. A recent global study found that 70 percent of professionals work remotely at least one day a week, and 53 percent work remotely for at least half of the week. Gallup recently estimated that 29% of all workers in the U.S. have an alternative work arrangement as their primary job.

We no longer need to be limited (scarcity) by employing individuals who live within an hour’s drive. We can now search the globe (abundance) for the vital people to fulfill a role.

We have lived within the confines of a traditional hierarchical structure for so long, that it’s hard to imagine that anything else is even plausible. How would your organization be different through the lens of abundance?

As David Rose said, “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st.”