Insecure leaders — generous leaders?

Studies show.

Two words that ought to send your critical-thinking apparatus into overdrive.

Trapeze artist flying through the airIn 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?

6 thoughts on “Insecure leaders — generous leaders?

  1. Ben Woelk

    I’m not sure that Gaskell has summarized the research done by Hays and Blader in a way that captures the nuances of their research. I’ve just skimmed their article and they mention that their research has to be taken in the context of prior research. I think there are difference inferences that can be drawn from Gaskell and his sources:

    1. The research Gaskell cites notes that managers who are suffering from imposter syndrome are more likely to delegate to others who exhibit the same characteristics. (I’m not sure if those managers self-identified or were otherwise categorized in that manner.) He doesn’t talk about whether the converse is true–Are managers who do not have imposter syndrome more likely to delegate to people who exhibit their characteristics?

    2. Hayes and Blader are more nuanced than Gaskell portrays, even in their abstract:

    “Although previous research has demonstrated that generosity can lead to status gains, the converse effect of status on generosity has received less attention. This is a significant gap because groups and society at large rely on the beneficence of all members, especially those holding high-status positions. More broadly, research on the psychology of status remains largely unexplored, which is striking in light of the attention given to other forms of social hierarchy, such as power. The current work focuses on the psychology of status and explores the interactive effects of status and legitimacy on generosity. In particular, we hypothesize that status will decrease generosity when the status hierarchy is perceived as legitimate because status can inflate views of one’s value to the group and sense of deservingness. In contrast, we hypothesize that status increases generosity when the status hierarchy is perceived as illegitimate, due to efforts to restore equity through one’s generosity. Our results support these hypotheses across 6 studies (a field study and 5 experiments) and empirically demonstrate that the effects of status and legitimacy on generosity can be attributed to concerns about equity in status allocation. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)”

    The sense I got from skimming their research article (and this may be a gross generalization on my part) was that leaders who believe they deserve to be leaders and that everyone else is in the position/place in the social hierarchy that they deserve to be in may be less generous. Those who recognize that they may not have risen solely on their own merits may be more accepting of and generous with others like them.

    It seems to come down to two things:
    1. Pride vs humility
    2. Leaders being most comfortable with those who are like them.

  2. Mark Baker


    I believe their are two sources of insecurity. One is paranoia, the fear that people are out to get you. The other is imagination, the capacity to realize how great a challenge is. Your average insecure middle manager is insecure because of paranoia. They lack the imagination to measure their skills against the enormity of the task and be humbled by it. Paranoid people are not humble. They tend to draw a small box around themselves with simplistic performance measures that have little or nothing to do with the real problem space. They then defend that turf ruthlessly, and are particularly abusive to anyone who suggests that the current standard of work is not really living up to the full challenge of the task. They build a small world and feel big inside it. Their insecurity comes from the attacks (real and imagined) on the security of that little world.

    Imposter syndrome, as I understand it, requires sufficient imagination to realize how big the task is and how great a variety of work is being done and how great a variety of solutions that are being attempted. It involves the realization that you cannot know everything about a problem or understand all the solutions that are being attempted, or measure their relative successes, before making the decisions you have to make to implement your own approach. You are thus constantly aware that someone somewhere may be doing it better.

    Given this realization, it is easy to imagine that there are other people out there who actually do comprehend the wholeness of the problem. If you read their books or attend their presentations they open up worlds to you you knew nothing about. You don’t so easily see the vast areas of things that they know nothing about, or the shaky foundations on which their confident assumptions are sometimes built. And then you feel like an imposter. You feel like you have to know everything they know, and a dozen people like them know, even if those people don’t know what you know.

    This is insecurity born of humility and imagination and its effect on your behavior is very different from the effect of insecurity born of paranoia.

    Doubtless some of those affected with imposter syndrome give up in the face of this feeling of inadequacy. But some go on anyway, perhaps realizing that the task space is so large that no one comprehends it and that the best thing you can do is to confidently march forward with the best project you can create and to let the market decide which solution it prefers. Chances are that the people whose knowledge and accomplishments give you imposter syndrome suffer from imposter syndrome themselves, but manage it well enough to confidently move forward with their projects anyway.

    Indeed, it seems to me that to be truly successful, you have to have sufficient imagination to realize how big the problem really is. The preconditions of imposter syndrome and the preconditions of success are one and the same. Does that mean that every successful person develops imposter syndrome, whether they admit it or not. But it is easy to see how imposter syndrome, founded as it is in humility and a realization of the true scope of the problem, could make people more generous to colleagues, collaborators, and even rivals.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I like your description of the role of imagination, and your point that imagination is the prerequisite for success and for impostor syndrome.

  3. Susan Carpenter

    Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable telling people that I don’t have all the answers. But it’s also true that the workplace has become more tolerant of people ‘fessing up. Looking back, I can’t imagine my command-and-control management of 1982 putting up with that, especially when I was one of very few women in my workplace. I would have been sneered right out of a job – or miserable, staying.
    When you stop and think about it, though, why would ANYONE want to work in a one-upmanship environment? It’s exhausting. It’s incestuous – the Big Boss hears what he or she wants to hear, or else. When people feel safe to speak up (and do), pitfalls are avoided and revelations breed innovation. It’s a no-brainer that’s been way too long in coming.

  4. Pingback: Go ahead and let them see you sweat | Leading Technical Communication

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