Two words that ought to send your critical-thinking apparatus into overdrive.
In this case, according to a report from Forbes writer Adi Gaskell, studies show that insecure leaders — those who say they experience impostor syndrome — are less selfish and more generous than other leaders. (Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re unqualified for the work you’re doing.)
Aware of their own shortcomings, the studies suggest, these leaders will forgive similar shortcomings in the people they lead. They even tend to delegate more work to employees who feel unworthy than to those who are confident and self-assured.
Gaskell writes, “The research found that when leaders suffer from impostor syndrome, they are more likely to be generous to others as they try and alleviate any perceived unfairness in their ascent to power.”
My own experience
That’s totally opposite to what I’ve experienced in my own career.
Of the leaders I’ve worked for (and with), it’s the insecure ones who act defensively and who are least likely to be generous. To a greater or lesser degree, they’re busy protecting their authority — which they often feel they gained unjustly — and trying to hide their deficiencies.
Leaders who are confident and self-assured, I’ve found, are much more generous: less apt to insist that everything be done their way, more willing to help when needed, more likely to deflect praise.
Confidence opens the door to true humility (not self-doubt) and servant leadership.
I’d much rather have a leader who’s confident than one who’s insecure. And so would you, I’ll bet.
Yet studies show the opposite to be true. So what’s going on? Here are some suggestions.
Impostor syndrome isn’t the same thing as inadequacy
First, we need to separate impostor syndrome, which (studies show) affects well over half of the workforce, from genuine feelings of inadequacy. An occasional bout of impostor syndrome doesn’t mean that a leader isn’t confident and self-assured. Perhaps a strong, qualified leader who occasionally experiences doubts can more readily identify with, and behave graciously toward, others who also have doubts.
Conversely, a leader who truly feels undeserving is probably looking over their shoulder at people they see as rivals, not as colleagues who need help.
Watching the words
Next, Gaskell uses words in a peculiar way. Insecure leaders are generous when they delegate important work to employees who also feel unworthy. Are they really being generous? Or are they just trying to stifle stronger employees who pose a greater threat to their authority?
Similarly, Gaskell uses selfish to describe the opposite of this behavior. Maybe clear-eyed or sensible would be closer to the mark.
A cultural factor?
Finally, could there be a cultural factor? One of the studies Gaskell cites was done in Germany. The other was published in the journal of the American Psychological Association, so presumably it was done in the U.S. It seems to me (tell me if I’m wrong) that the German business community in particular views itself as a meritocracy — while Americans are more apt to attribute their success to a combination of merit, timing, luck, and other intangibles.
Would a German leader who feels undeserving behave differently than an American? I’m not sure. But I wouldn’t make blanket statements that describe either behavior as generous or selfish.
All in all, I’m convinced that the best leaders display true humility and servant leadership — and that these characteristics flow from confidence, not from insecurity.
What do you think? In your experience, do insecure leaders behave less selfishly (or whatever adverb you care to use)? Why or why not? What do you think of the research that suggests they do?