by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“When bosses start feeling too secure about Insecurity…

When your leaders are constantly ignoring Ignorance…

When the management becomes immersed in Inertia…

That’s a sure way to wipe out the organization’s existence!

  ~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh


Man cuddling teddy bearIn August 2013, the web was abuzz with reports1 about a rare Benjamin Buttons type of ailment that stunted normal growth, causing adults to not only resemble but also – in most cases – to behave like children.

Does your organization have leaders who are already of mature biological or chronological age, but are still stuck with an immature emotional and mental mindset? These leaders might have been in the workforce for decades, yet their leadership development has been painfully slow despite being given all the basic nourishment. As a result, their team members and other stakeholders suffer, in the same way that the grief-stricken parents of afflicted children might feel.

What is hampering these leaders from reaching their full potential? What is causing them to defy natural development rates in the negative sense? Although the baffling medical condition remains unsolved, the barriers to leadership growth are fortunately less mysterious.

Development-defying barriers: 3I’s – Insecurity, Ignorance, Inertia

Letter i lower caseLetter I upper caseLetter I upper case 2The barriers to leadership growth tend to be more obvious because they are present in almost – if not all – organizations. While there could be a vast variety of barriers, we can reasonably summarize them into three broad barriers, as follows, in no particular order of priority.

Leadership Growth Barrier #1: Secure in Insecurity

Letter i lower case

Nothing prevents leaders from growing like insecurity. Like a roadblock, insecurity stops us from moving forward. Under normal circumstances – as aptly depicted by Maslow’s hierarchy – we achieve security through the progressive fulfillment of our needs, starting from the fundamental right up to the transcendental. However, some people whose higher-level needs remain unfulfilled may regress to lower levels where their needs appear easier to satisfy – a situation explained by Clayton P. Alderfer’s Principle of Frustration-Regression.2

A strong, secure person will keep on trying to fulfill his or her goals despite setbacks. But instead, if one becomes frustrated and decides to regress, then such behaviour stems from deep-seated insecurity under the guise of excuses:

“No one is willing to help me!”

“So-and-so is giving me a hard time!”

“I don’t want to trouble others.”

“Leaders who find it difficult to grow choose to regress because they are too insecure to risk failure; they would rather succeed in staying stagnant than fail in trying to grow.”

~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

In other words, leaders who find it difficult to grow choose to regress because they are too insecure to risk failure; they would rather succeed in staying stagnant than fail in trying to grow. The phrase “secure in insecurity” might sound paradoxical, but indeed truth is stranger than paradox – there are actually leaders who think they can remain so-called safe and secure under their blanket of insecurity.

Leadership Growth Barrier #2: Ignoring Ignorance

Letter I upper caseIgnorance begets ignorance. Leaders who are ignorant tend not to know what they don’t know and should know. When ignorance is coupled with insecurity, we get ignorant leaders who prevent others from being enlightened.

Worse still, such leaders even defend their right to remain ignorant to the extent that ignorance becomes a culture:

“I am the boss, and I don’t want others to know too much.”

“If the boss doesn’t know, then why should I want to know?”

“Knowing too much makes people think I’m trying to outdo the boss.”

And when such a culture pervades the organization like bubonic plague and the death knell sounds, these leaders don’t even know what hit them.

Leadership Growth Barrier #3: Immersed in Inertia

Letter I upper case 2When inertia sets in, people no longer feel the need to learn and grow but instead believe that maintaining the status quo is sufficient.

“As long as I get my salary at the end of the month…who cares if the company improves?”

“Why should I bother to help bring in more sales? I don’t get any commission anyway!”

“I’d better not suggest any new ideas – things are OK; after all, I’m not the boss or the owner!”

Complacency becomes the name of the game as stagnation spills over to the organization’s sales targets, customer service level, degree of competitiveness, staff remuneration, etc.

Symptoms and causes of 3I’s

Can we identify the symptoms of these deadly 3I’s before they boil over? Yes – if you find that your organization seems to offer no room for genuine expression, no constructive feedback and no capacity for meaningful change, then the alarm bells should start ringing. Get to the root of the problem.

So, what are the causes of the dreaded 3I’s that must be tackled? The causes come in all shapes and sizes, but suffice to say that they can be classified into three main causes:

Cause #1: Political systems

This refers to the presence of manipulative teams or individuals with entrenched self-interests, who are more enthusiastic about protecting their personal interests than promoting the organization’s interests. We find many examples of this in the context of national leadership in countries where, for instance, corruption is rampant but not adequately addressed simply because the leaders stand to gain something by not eradicating corruption.

Cause #2: Insular mindsets

These include paradigms that are detached from reality, whether from idealistic goals or grandiose thinking. Like the captain of the ill-fated cruise ship Costa Concordia who steered his ship to tragedy due to sheer bravado3, leaders with insular mindsets can display arrogance in their ignorance, sinking the very enterprise they were entrusted to navigate.

Cause #3: Anachronistic traditions

In this new millennium, the concept of HR as being merely a hiring and firing department is considered an anachronism from the 20th century. Imagine, if you held such an anachronistic view of HR today, you would lose your top talent and competitive edge in no time!

When the organization or certain groups within it cling on to obsolete practices and legacies, there tends to be a reluctance to disrupt the status quo or to offend the powers-that-be, in the mistaken belief that rocking the boat might sink the vessel. There is also the misconception that doing away with anachronistic traditions means discarding the founders’ sacred ideals. This need not be the case if leaders are very clear about the difference between maintaining core values and adapting day-to-day business practices.

Tearing down barriers to leadership growth

More often than not, professional intervention is required to tear down the barriers to leadership growth. To put it bluntly, self-medication or DIY will not work; you need an experienced, neutral and objective external party to help you do the tough, nasty work of removing those development-defying shackles.

Concluding remarks

In closing, I would like to summarize what we have discussed above, in the following table:

Summary of Barriers to Leadership Growth (Elangkoh, 2013)




 Insecurity  No room for genuine expression  Political systems
 Ignorance  No constructive feedback  Insular mindsets
 Inertia  No capacity for real change  Anachronistic traditions

Remember, harbouring insecurity, ignorance and inertia is not an option. Get rid of the deadly 3I’s before they choke the life out of you and your organization!





Photo credits

Image 1 courtesy of Artur84

Image 2 courtesy of Satit Srihin

Image 3 courtesy of Gubgib

Image 4 courtesy of Domdeen