The Leader’s Achilles Heel

It’s broken greater spirits than ours, and robbed the world of God knows how much beauty. I’ve seen it happen more times than I like to think about.
— Kurt Vonnegut Jr., While Mortals Sleep

A subtle weakness can take down a giant. Achilles was the mightiest of the Greek warriors, but it was his unprotected heel that became his undoing.

Insecurity, that shaky feeling that comes when confidence goes, is a leader’s Achilles heel. As Vonnegut notes, insecurity is a vulnerable weak spot that has broken spirits and robbed the world of beauty.

Perry Noble notes seven things insecure leaders cannot do:

Seven Things Insecure Leaders Can’t Do

  1. They can’t take risks. Insecure leaders are afraid of failure. Confusing their success with their significance, they are risk averse.
  2. They can’t give other people credit. Insecure leaders are blinded by pride. They only grudgingly acknowledge the good work performed by others.
  3. They can’t rejoice in others’ successes. Insecure leaders feel that “more of you” means “less of me,” so they refuse to rejoice when others succeed.
  4.  They can’t move on. Insecure leaders confuse their performance with their identify. Consequently, they get stuck cherishing their victories or sulking over their defeats.
  5. They can’t delegate effectively. Insecure leaders believe no one can do the job as well as they can, so they refuse to turn over work to others.
  6. They can’t empower other leaders. Insecure leaders are afraid that others will outshine them so they don’t empower coworkers to take on bigger roles.
  7. They can’t enjoy the success in their own backyard. Insecure leaders cannot see “what God is doing right in front of their eyes because they are too busy being envious of what He is doing somewhere else.” (Perry Noble)

Secure leaders are different. Years ago I had a conversation with a servant leader in a major organization on the West Coast. I will never forget what he told me:

My fingerprints are on everything, my name is on nothing, and that is okay.

Those are the words of a secure leader. That man did not have to tell me he was strong, or competent, or effective, but I knew he was. Secure leaders are like that.

Three Things Secure Leaders Don’t Do

John the Baptist, Jesus’ set-up man, was a secure leader. Did God need a voice? John picked up the megaphone. Did God need a bellhop? John carried the luggage. Did God only need a part-time worker? John said, “I’ll take that job!” Here is John’s story:

When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ . . . . He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’
— John 1:19, 23 ESV
Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew . . . And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ . . . He must increase, but I must decrease.’
— John 3:25-27,30 ESV

Reading John’s story we see three things secure leaders don’t do.

1. Secure leaders don’t confuse their role with their identity.

John knew his role. He was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. He was content with that. The title on his business card described what he did, not who he was. God made him and God loved him. That was John’s identity.

2. Secure leaders don’t consider themselves “owners”.

John said, A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. Secure leaders know that God is the owner of their time, their talents, and their resources. They just manage God’s stuff. That attitude frees them to put people ahead of profits and responsibility before privilege.

3. Secure leaders don’t have to be the star of the show.

John’s followers, jealous of Jesus’ increasing popularity, complained, “Everyone is going to him,” but John was not bothered. He responded by saying:

He must become greater; I must become less.
— John 3:30 NIV

Secure leaders are happy to become less – less visible, less recognized, and less “important.”

In his book, Good To Great, Jim Collins identifies these men and women as Level 5 leaders. Collins writes,

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.
— Jim Collins, Good To Great, page 21

Insecurity will keep any leader from becoming Level 5, so how does a leader become more secure? Once again, John provides the example.

One Thing Secure Leaders Must Do

John’s words to his contemporaries were short and powerful: “He must become greater; I must become less.”

That is the heart of servant leadership!

Servant leaders begin their day with an attitude of surrender. Like John, they stand before God with a humble heart and a readiness to serve: “These gifts, this role, this time … it belongs to you, Lord. Help me to use them to serve others today.”

Achilles fell but you can stand – confident and assured – as you use your leadership to serve God and the people around you.