Leaders and Insecurities

Every leader faces insecurities. We just don’t talk about them. Because that would somehow undermine our leadership, right? So many of us walk around masking ourselves while we encourage those we lead to remove their own masks.

The vast majority of conversations I’ve had with young leaders over the past 2 months have revolved around the issue of insecurities in leadership. Some of the insecurities are legitimate, some are figments of the imagination, some are just plain ridiculous. And I’m talking about my own.

I’m discovering there are three primary categories of insecurities that I face. Or at least three different kinds of responses that are required.

There are leadership insecurities that I just need to grow through. Time and experience diminish their power over me.

There are leadership insecurities that I just have to ignore. They will always be present, and I just have to stop feeding them.

And there are leadership insecurities that I just need to wrestle to the ground. They are rooted in pride or other sinful pattern and need to be put to death.

I’m feeling a few blog posts in the making…

I’m discovering three different responses to leadership insecurities. There are insecurities you have to grow through, insecurities you have to ignore, and insecurities that you just have to wrestle to the ground. Today I’m going to tackle the first one.

Ten years ago, I assumed the lead on small groups at National Community Church. I have a distinct memory of an older, more experienced leader questioning my ability to lead. More specifically, questioning my ability to teach anything worthwhile. Regardless of possessing a very healthy self assurance strength, that one conversation (honestly, it was more of an off-hand comment) shaped my view of my leadership value for almost 10 years. In fact, it’s only been in the past 2 years or so that I’ve come to a place where I think I have any wisdom or experience that is worth passing on. But that was an insecurity I had to grow through.

Some insecurities just need time. Time and experience. Some leadership insecurities plague us in our twenties but we just need to hold on tight. Because a decade can make a world of difference. Ten years of time and experience will cause them to diminish in their power over us. Of course, then we discover that there is a whole new set of insecurities that we have to grow through and we go through the cycle all over again.

I think about young leaders like Joshua– who got numerous pep talks from Moses and God before his new role of leadership and in the first few years of it. I think about Timothy as he served as pastor in Ephesus. I think about Samuel who grew into his gift of hearing from God and Joseph who grew into a more mature understanding of how to leverage his influence.

Insecurities that often require this kind of response include things like age, lack of experience, lack of wisdom, lack of opportunities, etc. Young leaders tend to get frustrated and want to speed up the process. Just slow down and enjoy the journey. Read a lot, learn a lot, experiment a lot, and look for mentors.

Some insecurities will go away…we just have to give them time.

I’m discovering three different responses to leadership insecurities. There are insecurities you have to grow through, insecurities you have to ignore, and insecurities that you just have to wrestle to the ground. Today I’m going to tackle the ones we just have to ignore.

Here’s a recurring conversation in my life. Usually after a night of Theology 101 or The Story.

NCCer: You know so much about the Bible and church history! Where did you go to seminary?
Me: Well, I didn’t, actually.
Now Confused NCCer: Oh…well, so did you go to Bible College?
Me: (awkardly) No…I just read a lot.
NCCer: Oh…okay.

In those moments, I never know what to say. Do I talk about having a masters degree in engineering and how that really shapes my ideas about community and discipleship? Do I talk about how my Southern Baptist upbringing taught me more about apologetics and theology than most seminaries do? Do I list out all the books I’ve read or the seminary classes I’ve actually taught?

I typically just let the conversation go. But then I go home and reconsider whether or not I should be doing what I’m doing. I know there are folks who have chosen not to follow because I don’t have the proper training and credentials. Some of them may have even left the church.  So…yeah…maybe I shouldn’t do this.

There is often significant insecurity that stems from the fact that I don’t have the right “story” for a pastor. I don’t have the right training, the right resume, the right credentials.  And for the foreseeable future at least, none of those things are going to change. So I can either let it paralyze me. Or I can choose to ignore it.

In the movie A Beautiful Mind (spoiler alert),  mathematician John Nash takes on a job as a cryptographer and then his life begins to unravel. In a nightmarish journey through fantasy and reality, he discovers that he is schizophrenic. And some of the most meaningful friends in his life are merely figments of his imagination. The roles they played in his life were very real…to him…but for him to lead any sort of normal life, he would have to force himself to ignore them.

Paul asked God three times to remove the thorn in his flesh. We don’t have any idea what that thorn was, but what we do know is that it was something Paul saw as a hindrance to his leadership. And he really wanted it to go away. Instead, he had to learn to ignore it.

Sometimes, we have insecurities in our lives that we just have to ignore. They are not rooted in sin or pride, so they don’t need to be crucified. And we can’t grow through them because they’ve always been there and may always remain. We just have to make a conscious choice to ignore them.  

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Heather Zempel
After working as an environmental engineer for a few years and a policy advisor on Capitol Hill for a few years, Heather finally landed as the Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, DC.