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Coaching Leaders From Insecure to Secure

Coaching leaders to be secure offers the opportunity to improve company culture.

Key points

  • Leaders who are out of touch with human needs or who lack empathy are ineffective people managers.
  • Insecure leadership traits can be identified by reviewing performance metrics, monitoring staff turnover, and overall company social capital.
  • Professional coaching can help insecure leaders become secure leaders.
Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

In my roles as a professional coach, Agile Team Facilitator, and leader with different companies, I have observed people in action. From being part of a team to an individual contributor, and within many levels of an organization, I have realized that leaders who are out of touch with human needs or who lack empathy make horrible people managers. Yes, they can leverage resources, execute deliverables, and move objectives forward, but they can demean their talent’s morale and hinder consistent productivity. This leadership style can create a workforce of unempowered, frustrated, and low-performing contributors. In addition, they frequently lose high-performing talent to their competitors and add to any organizational chaos.

I call this management style "insecure leadership." An insecure leader is a people manager who can produce results but lacks sufficient people skills and empathy needed to maintain high performance. They are more likely to operate from a top-down, hierarchal leadership approach.

Insecure leaders deliver pyrrhic victories for the organization. They tend to burnout human capital, deplete resource capacity, and do not sustain consistent employee engagement. Based on my experience as a coach and observation of leaders in action, I have identified the below insecure leadership traits that are most likely to create low performance in teams.

An insecure leader:

  • Manages people through intimidation.
  • Has an authoritative style and a borderline bully approach.
  • Doesn't take accountability for their team or direct reports’ low performance.
  • Doesn't listen to their team, direct reports, or those they feel are “below” them.
  • Has a closed, “just-do-what-I-say” mindset.
  • Focuses on their own success.
  • Has a biased vision of what should or could be.
  • Sees the labor force or human capital as something to control.
  • Plays favorites (usually gives more attention to those who will kiss up to them).
  • Doesn't like feedback or being challenged.
  • Won’t protect their direct reports.
  • Breaks trust with colleagues (frequently throws people under the bus).
  • Is intimated by “their” leadership/manager.
  • Demonstrates poor emotional intelligence.

This list is not exhaustive. I developed the criteria based on my coaching notes, team surveys, and common themes or language among those who shared with me that they felt unsupported by their direct managers. If three or more of these traits appear, then that people manager is considered an insecure leader. Furthermore, in reviewing company culture maturity assessments, 360 feedback and reviewing prior performance, I identified patterns to support conceptualizing traits of an insecure leader. For example, one company I consulted with had over 30,000 employees. My role was to help build the company’s coaching culture and improve leadership capabilities. I interviewed managers, individual contributors, and project leads for two of the organization’s twelve branches. I facilitated workshops and team coaching for over thirty teams with eight or more members.

In surveying and facilitating interventions for teams with low performance, high turnover, and/or low morale, at least three of the above insecure leadership traits appeared for the direct manager of those teams. The more traits present, the lower the performance and morale, and the higher the pain points and turnover in those teams. As such, there was a direct correlations with three or more of traits and talent impact. Of course, with secure leaders who manage people, when less than three of those traits appeared, those teams had better performance, higher morale, and less turnover.

What Is a Secure Leader Style?

If there is an insecure leadership style, there is a secure leadership style. My work focuses on how to help move leaders from the former to the latter by improving leadership security. A secure leadership style refers to people managers who are in-tune with human needs and leverage their people skills to deliver on bottom-line objectives. They are sensitive to human behavior (especially when organizational changes impact resilience and resistance) and have the necessary behavioral and technical skills to sustain high-performing teams while meeting business goals.

Secure leaders are more likely to work with their direct reports from a bottom-up or partnership approach rather than a top-down, hierarchal leadership structure. They empower their teams to be great and leverage that greatness effectively. These leaders can find that sweet spot between the company’s bottom line and what their workforce needs to feel like stakeholders in the company's vision and mission.

Below are key traits of a secure leader. Again, this is not an exhaustive list. The same methods used to identify insecure leadership traits were used to identify secure leadership traits.

A secure leader:

  • Has a growth, open mindset.
  • Partners with team members and does not dictate prescribed ways of working.
  • Protects and advocates for their team.
  • Listens to and meaningfully addresses team pain points.
  • Removes barriers for or with the team.
  • Owns their actions and takes accountability for their role in the team’s shortcomings.
  • Celebrates and acknowledges team wins; gives the team credit for successes.
  • Moves out of their teams’ way when it comes to executing objectives.
  • Trusts their team members and direct reports.
  • Holds space for mistakes and focuses on lessons learned vs. blaming.
  • Willing to work in the trenches with their team when needed.
  • Provides a north star to help their teams meet business goals or deliverables.
  • Invests in and cares about team members’ personal and professional development.
  • Leverages their leadership and relationship-building skills to influence others to impact change.
  • Demonstrates inclusivity, equity, and belonging among team members.
  • Demonstrates emotional intelligence and empathy.

Insecure to Secure Leadership Coaching Approach

For those of us in the leadership coaching or capability management spaces, it is important to remember that leaders are “people too.” All leaders come with conditioned behaviors, like anyone else. As such, insecure leadership traits develop through having behaviors rewarded or punished. When a behavior or trait is rewarded or punished, it becomes reinforced beneficially or destructively. In addition, humans are creatures of habit. We tend to automatically express traits that were reinforced to help us cope, problem-solve, avoid experiences, and navigate situations to manage our comfort (or discomfort) levels. So, when a behavior (good or bad) gets us what we want, it gets reinforce as purposeful.

Behavior can be unlearned or newly learned. That means leadership styles can transform or develop over time through professional development and/or coaching. As coaches, we can be instrumental in how this occurs. Companies that invest in building leadership capabilities can use coaching and training to develop secure leaders.

Below are a few key points that I have used to support and help develop secure leadership:

  • I get to know the company’s overall objectives, mission, vision, and expectations. That way, I can refer to the company’s values or goals as a north star to guide the coaching conversation. Likewise, I can leverage this information to see how the leader’s values and behaviors align with the company’s goals and partner with the leader in creating congruency.
  • During coaching sessions, I ask questions about the leader’s values, work ethics, and beliefs on managing people. Additionally, I get curious about how the leader perceives their current behaviors or leadership presence, how their leadership style support or counters team performance, what their future state behaviors can look like, areas of improvement or lessons learned, and what their vision is for the further development of their team. This gives me an understanding of how their leadership style developed and what behaviors were reinforced.
  • I often administer 360 feedback, strength assessments, and review prior performance feedback, as objective measures of current leadership style or people skills. I typically share and explore feedback with the leader to identify ways to leverage their strengths to address learning opportunities and to bring awareness towards areas of behavior and leadership traits unknown to the leader.
  • I hold space for grace and growth while acknowledging what they are doing well as a leader. Likewise, I use verbal “ways to praise” as a reward when the leader uses or experiments with secure leadership traits.
  • I often share resources, such as case studies, articles, videos, exercises/activities, podcasts, and books to help create mind shifts and offer new perspectives the leader can reflect on and experiment with as we partner in our coaching sessions.
  • Set this expectation with all stakeholders and include metrics to monitor and manage Secure leadership capabilities and maturity.

Finally, as you embark on a coaching or training partnership with organizations and leaders, remember that secure leadership development is a marathon and not a sprint. Behavior change takes time. It happens incrementally, gradually, and with missteps until the traits stick and become a new habit.

More from Dawn C. Reid Ph.D., PCC, ICA-ATF, ICA-ACC
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