Category Archives: Leadership

Quick summaries of practices to increase leadership capacity and capabilities.

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.

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.

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.”

Leadership: continuous personal change.

One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change.  Personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment.  ~Robert E. Quinn

I don’t think anyone in leadership would argue against the fact that we are living in an era of continuous change. And many of us pride ourselves on our ability to maneuver our organizations through nonstop alterations. However, this week in particular, I was struck by how much we resist change when it becomes personal.

Much of leadership, if not nearly all of leadership, is expressed or manifested in how we behave. Yes, that’s right, a word that seems to make many leaders uncomfortable. This week a leader said to me, “You mean you don’t want us to just change what we think but we need to change our behavior?”  Changing what we think is certainly a critical component, but if we stop there, what have we accomplished? 

Learning and Change

I recall a definition of learning, I think it was from Warren Bennis, he said that learning takes place when we acquire new knowledge and then alter our behavior based upon that new knowledge. In other words, acquiring knowledge, only, isn’t really learning.

Marshall Goldsmith, guru of executive coaching, said “After living with their dysfunctional behavior for so many years (a sunk cost if ever there was one), people become invested in defending their dysfunctions rather than changing them.” Peter Senge, author of the classic The Fifth Discipline, stated “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” That’s his exclamation point, not mine.

We may welcome change, as long as it’s change around us, not within us. 

Given what I do for a living, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that periodically people will call or meet with me and rant on and on about another person – a colleague, a supervisor, etc.  They spout off all of the things that bother them, that make them angry, that they disagree with, etc.  Then they pause, and ask me what they should say to that person to get them to change their behavior. 

When things aren’t working for us, or aren’t working as we believe they should, it’s interesting that our first instinct is to search for ways to change the other person. I’m certainly not advocating for a workplace where there is no accountability. I am suggesting that we think of ourselves in a state of continuous personal change. And that could mean that the best alternative to changing a situation or improving a working relationship is for us to seek ways that we can change our behavior. 

Continuous Personal Change

Robert Quinn, author of many books, wrote Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. The basic premise of the book is to identify and describe the surprising relationship between organizational change and personal change. Quinn says, “If organizations must make deep change more frequently, so must the people who work in organizations.”

Leadership: continuous personal change.

The alpha leader is a dying breed.

From start-ups to the Fortune 100, the world is changing. Alpha types often still run the show—but they are also a dying breed. ~Jeffrey Hull, PhD, author of Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World

As I walk the streets of Chicago with my dog, Lily, she is sure to let other dogs know that she is the alpha dog. So I have daily first-hand experience with the concept of alpha types. But in the world of leadership, as Hull points out, the alpha leader approach is a dying breed. It’s simply no longer effective in a fast-paced changing world.

I’m reading Jeffrey Hull’s book. It’s one of those books where I discover I’m highlighting nearly every word. The highlights are mostly a mark of enthusiastic agreement for something I too have been seeing happen over the past several years. The ground underneath us is shifting, and so too are the tenets of effective leadership.

Highlights from Flex

I’ll share with you just a few of my highlights from Hull’s book Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World.


There is an emerging recognition that people with less directive, less authoritative styles can be equally valuable and impactful in leadership roles. It’s a shift in mind-set from a goal-oriented, top-down figuration (alpha) to a growth-oriented, process-based one (beta). Beta leaders are in flux, always improving, and always aware of the need to disrupt the status quo.

Alphas want to win. Betas want to grow.

Beta means being comfortable in a state of constant growth, not aspiring so much to ascend the hierarchy and dominate from above, but to lead from anywhere, anytime.

Beta leadership is, at its core, about reciprocity. It parallels a cultural shift toward a shared economy. Just as many of us no longer have just one career, or even five, leadership is no longer about climbing a ladder to reach a pinnacle of success.

…less emphasis upon hierarchy and more of a sense of teamwork, reciprocity, and respect for the talent and expertise of everyone in the room.


I find this terribly exciting (of course I am a bit of a leadership theory nerd). It’s exciting because in the past leadership was authoritative (and in many instances, still is). One person made the decisions and the others were expected to follow. But this new shift, not only expects, it requires (or even demands) leaders to be engaged in collaborative decision making. Not only respecting alternative views, but relying on others to make decisions.

The organization really becomes an “organization” of talent and expertise that, collectively, becomes capable of flexing in an ever-changing world.