4 Ways to Detect Leaders with Low Self-Esteem

  • 4 Min Read

It’s hard for employees to believe in their leaders if their leaders don’t believe in themselves.

Being in a formal leadership position is no joke—it can be stressful, amazing, confusing, and enough to make you want to quit all within the same day! There are days when you have to dive into your “kudos” email folder just to be reminded of what you DO get right. Then there are days when even the “kudos” folder won’t work. Some days, it’s just tough going.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard to demonstrate good followership to a formal leader who lacks confidence. No, we don’t need our leaders to be perfect. We don’t even WANT them to be perfect. We just want them to be authentic. And to be an authentic leader, a certain level of leadership self-esteem is required. There’s a connection between authenticity and leadership self-esteem that I think is sorely overlooked in conversations about effective leadership and leadership development—it’s hard for people to believe in leaders if leaders don’t believe in themselves.

Every leader offers up some cues that say, “I don’t believe in myself.” The bad news is the negative impact these cues can have on employees is twofold:

  1. It can create a feeling of uncertainty in employees when they are following a leader who doesn’t trust themselves
  2. When a leader lacks trust in THEMSELVES employees can feel like the lack of trust is in THEM.

Here are four behaviors to look out for. While some of them only offer whispers of insecurity, some of them SCREAM it. If you’re a leader who exhibits them, chances are their impact is greater than you know. If you don’t know if you’re exhibiting them, be brave and ask. There is no leadership development without (sometimes) excruciating vulnerability.

1. Micromanaging

Hire amazing people. Onboard them properly. Trust them to do good work. The impact of micromanagement is sorely minimized. Best case scenario, your highly intelligent and motivated employee “leaves” but doesn’t leave. They give up. They wait to be told what to do. They stop sharing their great ideas. They stop taking initiative. They stop investing in the organization and working hard because they know that you’re just going to change their work anyway. They “leave” but don’t leave. Worst case scenario? They leave.

2. Arrogance

There’s a huge difference between leadership confidence and arrogance. An arrogant leader can often be found focusing on the wrong things, for example, anything that makes them look ‘right’ rather than leading their team. An arrogant leader can’t share the spotlight. They’ll take the recognition for someone else’s ideas (because ironically, their ‘arrogance’ is mostly compensation for a lack of self esteem). A leader’s inability to let someone else shine, contribute, be right, and be seen is sad. It reveals a leader’s low self-esteem and completely disengages people.

3. Bullying

The need to make someone else feel bad via leadership screams lack of leadership self-esteem. Unfortunately, many on the receiving end are so traumatized by the impact of the bullying that they are unable to see that. But to others, it’s obvious. If fear, humiliation, bullying, and being demeaning and threatening are tactics in your leadership toolkit, then it’s time for a long and humble look in the mirror.

4. Whose ideas you support

This one isn’t as explicit as the other three examples, but it’s there just under the surface. And you might not even notice it at first. And then, suddenly, you notice the pattern. It goes something like this: an employee suggests something, the leader isn’t on board, time goes by (maybe even months!), someone with more power than the employee makes the same suggestion, and the leader is suddenly on board. Sound familiar? A leader with low self-esteem doesn’t trust themselves enough to know, in their own mind, if they supports an idea, especially one that might make someone else look amazing! So, support for the idea only comes after someone who is in a more powerful position makes the same suggestion.

Effective leadership is crucial to an organization’s ability to be amazing and achieve its goals. And it is my genuine belief that almost all leaders who demonstrate these behaviors want more for themselves as leaders.

The role of leader is so much more than what you do every day. It’s a statement about who you are.

Take some deep breaths. Look in the mirror. Ask your employees and colleagues for their feedback. DO THE INNER WORK. Your leadership depends on it.

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