7 Symptoms of Insecure Leadership as Modeled by Herod the Great

image_for_Dec_5_blog_post (1)My new book, The Top 10 Leadership Conversations in the Bible, is based on research that identified 1,090 interactions between a leader and followers.[1]  Only one of these conversations is connected to the traditional Christmas story. The leader is Herod, and the followers are Magi from the east, along with leaders from the Jewish religious establishment. The situation is a search for a child king, signified by the star in the east.

It is ironic that a leader known as Herod the Great could be such an embodiment of insecurity in leadership. Matthew described his response to the inquiry from the group of Magi about a king born to the Jews in three words, “he was disturbed.” Herod’s reputation was such that upon hearing how he felt, “all Jerusalem” was disturbed with him (Matthew 2:3).

Everyone has some level of an identity crisis that fuels negative self-talk. John Adams, writing in his journal before the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774, said: “I wander alone, and ponder. I muse, I mope, I ruminate. We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, education, in travel, fortune—in everything I feel unutterable anxiety.”[2]

And who would join him at this meeting? Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, just to name a few. Not a bad list. Even the greatest leaders, deep down, wrestle with a measure of insecurity.

My first reaction to Herod’s insecurity was to write it off as an expression of his moral bankruptcy. But the more I’ve thought about it the more I believe that while few leaders could identify with what Herod did, we all relate to why he did it. The question isn’t, “Will I feel insecure?” but rather, “How will I deal with insecurity.”

Herod Who?

There are nine different leaders from the Herodian line included in the New Testament. Herod the Great – an epithet that could only be applied to him when his character and accomplishments are compared to other members of his family – was born in about 73 B.C. and died in 4 B.C. at the age of 70. (You may remember that our calendar is off by several years; Jesus was born before Herod’s death.)

Herod made a trip to Rome and was confirmed by the Roman Senate as “king of Judea” in 40 B.C. He took control of Jerusalem in the year 37 B.C. With the backing of Rome, the scope of his territory was unparalleled since the time of Solomon. Herod embarked on an ambitious rebuilding project that touched nearly every city under his rule. In some cases, entire cities were rebuilt from the ground up.

The 400-year-old temple, rebuilt by Zerubbabel and the first group of exiles to return to Zion, paled in comparison to Herod’s palaces. In 19 B.C. he instigated a 46-year refurbishing project focused on the Jewish Temple. The finished project, known as Herod’s Temple, captured the imagination of the world of his day.

Herod had adapted himself to the political intrigue and addiction to power that marked his era. He was ruthless in his dealings with anyone posing a threat. He was as cunning as he was ruthless and wielded this craft successfully in maintaining independence from the infamous Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. By the time Jesus came on the scene, Herod the Great was the undisputed ruler of Palestine, surrounded by the trappings of power and leadership.

Yet one providential meeting with an entourage from the east triggered a series of actions that reveal the telltale signs of an insecure leader. Even massive amounts of consolidated power do not inoculate leaders from insecurity. In fact, large doses of unchecked power may actually predispose leaders to it.

7 Symptoms of Insecure Leadership – As Modeled by Herod the Great


Insecurity is easier to spot in others than in ourselves. I challenge you to think – as I have – about how easy it is to allow these same issues to find a place in your own leadership.

  1. Insecure leaders are easily threatened, even if the obstacles to their leadership are a long way off. Insecurity can express itself in various degrees of paranoia. Herod was in his late sixties when the Magi came to visit. They were inquiring about someone who had recently “been born king of the Jews.” (Matthew 2:2) They were looking for a baby who even on a fast track to power would likely not have been a problem until after Herod’s death. But one of the symptoms of insecure leadership is the tendency to rush to judgment when it comes to any possible threat to future leadership.
  2. Insecure leaders are nearly incapable of celebrating the victories of others. Leaders like Herod operate from a scarcity paradigm, which says there is only so much of everything to go around, so if you get some of anything (including good news) – there must be less for me. Too many Christian leaders are trapped inside a scarcity paradigm. The Magi from the east came to Herod, apparently without thinking the good news of a Jewish king would be such a threat to the status quo. Herod played right along with them, even suggesting he would like to “go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:8) Herod was celebratory on the outside but on the inside, he was anything but happy.
  3. Insecure leaders often exaggerate or read meaning into the information they gather. Some scholars have suggested that Herod’s fear was connected in part to the perceived astrological significance of the mysterious star. A sign in the heavens of this nature can only mean one thing—I’m doomed.  Actually, the sign had nothing to do with Herod at all. But this kind of reaction is typical for insecure leaders. When vanity and pride serve as your template for interpreting information it is not so unusual to result in exaggeration and insecurity.
  4. Insecure leaders use deceptive and secretive means to gather information. Herod met secretly with the Magi, completely misrepresenting his motives and intentions. This too is typical of insecure leadership. Desperate and bordering on paranoid, this kind of leader sneaks around, holding hush-hush meetings that end with, “let’s keep this between us.”
  5. Insecure leaders often play the interests of one group against another. Herod first met with the chief priests and teachers of the law to inquire about the Christ. He then held another meeting with the Magi. Having one secret meeting is rarely enough for insecure leaders. They need to meet with a second faction—in secret or otherwise—and will do almost anything to play one group against the other, or at least keep them from collaborating.
  6. Insecure leaders are vulnerable to over reaction and irrational behavior. After Herod realized “he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…” (Matthew 2:16) No wonder all Jerusalem was disturbed with him. Herod’s irrational over-reaction is extreme even by tyrannical standards. But don’t allow the exaggeration of his insecurity to obscure similar tendencies in your own heart. If you want to measure how secure a leader is, watch how he or she responds to bad news.
  7. Insecure leaders use a force and intimidation power base to hold onto their position. When leaders seek to influence followers on purpose they must use some form of power base. Effective leaders understand the importance of spiritual authority as a means of influence. Insecure leaders tend to have the default setting for their power base marked force and intimidation. How do you respond when you really want to influence a decision?

There is Another Way


If Herod is the poster boy for insecure leadership, Moses is one of several biblical characters that represent the opposite extreme. Moses knew what it was like to be inside the ivory tower of power in Egypt. He also knew what it was like to dispense the justice of God through the working of miracles. Yet, Moses’ life was marked by an amazing humility (Numbers 12:3), a willingness to share power with others (Numbers 11:29) and a gracious forgiveness to those who opposed or criticized his leadership (Numbers 12:10-13). When his followers rebelled against God and his leadership, Moses begged for their forgiveness, even suggesting that God blot him “out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

Herod or Moses? On the surface that is not a hard decision, regardless of whether you are talking about what kind of leader you want to follow or imitate. But the real question is, “What kind of leader are you?”

Access a searchable database of biblical leadership conversations for free at BibleCenteredLeadership.com.

[1] You can learn more about my research in chapter 00 of my book, The Top 10 Leadership Conversations in the Bible: Practical Insights from Extensive Research on over 1,000 Biblical Leaders. The book along with a searchable database of leadership conversations in the Bible is available for free here.

[2] David McCullough, John Adams, Simon & Schuster, pg 23