Self-doubt, the Hallmark of any Great Leader. But Ditch the “Self”

Self-doubt is a somewhat demonized sensation in the leadership sphere and I have seen many people throughout my career that opted to repress it in favor of a more confident appearance. Unintended consequences of this behavior run rampant in companies the world over. So today I feel compelled to tell you a few stories from my personal and professional life, about what self-doubt means to me and how I deal with it.

Self-doubt is important

The best leaders I’ve ever met have accepted self-doubt as part of their identity. They don’t fight it and have understood that if you are not doubting yourself from time to time, you have blocked notions of critical introspection and growth. It is that feeling of discomfort, coupled with kindness towards yourself, that helps you unlock new frontiers.

The higher you climb on the (especially corporate) ladder, the more you may feel pressure to perform. You are human, we all are. And self-doubt is part of the exciting ride that is being human. That which differentiates good from bad leaders, employees and peers, is what they choose to do with this self-doubt.

But Vero, I don’t know how to deal with it, it makes me feel insecure

Blue, red and orange portrait illustration of a woman absorbed in self-reflectionSame, it makes me feel insecure too. There are a few things I had to realize throughout my career that allowed me to not push self-doubt away, but rather operationalize it.

One is that language shapes our reality. Rather than thinking of self-doubt, I started thinking about curiosity. I stopped pushing what I came to understand as intrusive thoughts away, I leaned into them and accepted that they were guiding me towards questions I wanted answers to. The other one is that, contrary to the construction of the word, self-doubt is not something you should deal with by yourself. Self-doubt was always a guide to me you see, a signal that pointed towards an area of professional life that needed addressing, an area where I could change things for the better.

Let me give you a few examples based on the dimensions of self-doubt I identified for myself in my corporate life.

Doubt about the quality of my work

Today, I call myself a “sober perfectionist.” I still like things to live up to my internal quality standards, but I no longer obsess about how this gets expressed in artifacts, such as a Powerpoint deck or the form factor of an email. There no longer is a solid line between my sense of quality for my work and my qualities as a person. I know my worth and that “good enough” is exactly that. Good enough. This took a lot of inner work, but also a specific intervention I recall while still in my corporate life.

I trust most of you know these moments. I had to prepare and give a strategy presentation to senior management, the room filled with advocates and for lack of a better word, opponents. I obsessed over every slide for days, wrecked my mind for the ideal text box placement, the perfect headline. My boss took me aside at some point and said the following words that changed things forever for me:

“Vero, why are you obsessing so much about this? Nobody knows this material as well as you do. You live it, breathe it, it is yours. Trust in that, not the quality of your slide deck.”

Now, I don’t quite recall how that meeting went. But one thing is for certain. Had it gone disastrously wrong, I would definitely remember it. And I remember my boss’s words forever.

Doubt about the decisions I take

This is a slightly trickier space, whether you are high up in the corporate food chain fearing to not live up to your responsibilities, or further down fearing to make a mistake and not getting that promotion. Oftentimes there is no clear right or wrong, there is choice and freedom. But every choice comes with its own set of tradeoffs between positives and negatives. If you don’t know your “location,” the emotional place from which you approach these decisions, something called “decision fatigue” can quickly kick in and you start to feel stuck.

So for me, knowing my location and changing it if necessary was a big thing to learn. You can be “below the line,” in a space where you see problems, hurdles and dead-ends. Or you can be in an “above the line” space, focused on opportunity and gain while managing risks objectively, not emotionally.

Another example from my own work and what I did to change my location. I was always a member of global or regional teams and we used to have monthly review meetings to assess, greenlight or block initiatives our regions and markets were proposing. I could never quite shake a sense of audacity that I, someone who was not with her boots on the ground in those places, would have the power to approve or deny an initiative. I found 2 things to help me deal with this sensation and approach these moments with an “above the line” headspace:

  1. Realizing that this was a communal effort. I would spend time with, and in the headspace of, those remote teams both before and after these pressurized meetings. How did the proposal come to be beyond what I would see in the slide deck? If I decided against the proposal, I would spend time with the team afterwards, seeking solutions and modifications to the original plan to help it fly.

  2. Realizing that I am not alone. I would consult with peers, trusted advisors and senior mentors to ensure that I approached my decisions from the right headspace rather than something like pure risk avoidance. I learnt to stand firm in my perspectives, but remove my ego from them. I loved being logically proven wrong and finding a better path.

Doubt about my quality as a person

This is by far the trickiest one, because there are hardly any external measures for it. Am I a good citizen? Am I a kind person? Am I a good boss for my team? Do I live by my values and morals?

Learning what my values are, deeply and emotionally, took a long time. Some of my most treasured ones are honesty, courage, freedom, and loyalty. I keep those near the surface of my day to day life, so that I can look at them in the light of day. I am not always proud and I sometimes act in ways that betray one or more of these. But I notice it. I am OK with it. I introspect. I realize and accept that I am human and as such flawed like everybody else. I practice self-acceptance.

Knowing your values, finding the courage to live by them, and then finding some more courage to forgive yourself and move on from moments when you couldn’t, is the strongest antidote to this kind of self-doubt there is.

Repressed self-doubt & authoritarian leadership

I am, among other things, a certified Leadership Coach. As such I cannot help myself sometimes, and so must share a little note about what self-doubt can do for or to leaders. I want us to reflect on what makes them compelling (hint: self-doubt is a positive ingredient!). There are many ways in which people can exude a certain magnetism that draws us in. I want us to think of two in particular today, the first one where we want to be, yet the latter probably whom you have met before plenty of times.

The first type relates to those people who are competent, robust, warm and vulnerable. You feel at home with them, heard and safe. You want to spend time in their presence and join their team because things just seem amazing as compared to where you are. The other type displays competence, radiating charisma, palpable presence and a confidence that inspires you. The term “Charismatic Megafauna” comes to mind, for anyone who has ever been on a safari.

Think back a bit, or think of your current surroundings. I am sure you have met the latter type before, they are hard to overlook and can be entirely intoxicating. But more often than not, when confidence is their shield and an attempt to keep self-doubt caged rather than a result of self-work and comfort with vulnerability, you will quickly feel that something is off about them. You feel uncomfortable, not safe, and you catch whiffs of autocratic leadership styles.

So the truth is: self-doubt is natural. It is there. The way in which you choose to deal with it will determine what kind of leader emerges from within you. Those that have accepted it, will inevitably inspire more followership and perform in their roles with longevity.

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