How Doubting Yourself Can Make You a More Effective Leader

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Consider the following scenario:

A leader convenes a meeting to present an issue or a problem the team or company is facing. The leader presents what they are thinking needs to be done but then asks the team members for their ideas. However, each time a team member makes a suggestion, the leader responds with a reason why that won’t work or would not be practical, and by the end of the meeting… perhaps after an hour or two of people’s time…. the leader concludes that their idea is the best approach and moves forward. Perhaps you have experienced this exact scenario or some version of it at work. 

There is somewhat of a paradox at play here. For most people, it was ‘having the answers’ and being the ‘expert’ that made them highly qualified for their technical job. As people develop more and more expertise, they are given more responsibility or more complex tasks to do. Eventually, they are promoted into a leadership position where suddenly they are faced with a broader and more complex set of issues than they can possibly have the expertise to resolve. However, while the position and responsibilities have changed, the mental paradigm that believes, “I have to know the answer and be the expert to be effective” hasn’t shifted. 

How does an individual make the shift from being rewarded for ‘having the answers’ to embracing the fact that they will never have all the answers and must now engage the contributions of a diverse team of people in order to be effective?

While self-doubt can be detrimental for a leader, the practice of regularly seeking challenges to one’s way of thinking is a powerful way to create a culture that supports engagement, innovation, and excellence.

I recently spent six months working with a vertical line of leaders in a company that ranged from newly promoted managers to senior directors. The goals were to support new leaders in making the transition from a technical job to a leadership role and then to align the leaders within the division in terms of their leadership approach. 

One of the first things I did was to have people articulate how they understood the role of leadership. What makes someone a leader and how do they do what they do? What emerged from this inquiry was the fact that most people’s ideas about what it meant to be a leader were based upon how their bosses had treated them. Many of their responses reflected what we would identify as an autocratic form of leadership, most similar to a command and control approach. Some ‘reward’ and lots of ‘punishment’ to cajole people into compliance. 

As we dove more deeply into our study of leadership, they recognized the impact that this form of leadership had on them personally and on the culture of the organization. As they gained exposure to more varied approaches to leadership, their curiosity was piqued. How might other approaches to leadership work in the context of their environment? How effective would these ‘new’ forms be? How might their experience of their jobs change? How might the quality of the service they provided be impacted?

There were many shifts that occurred over the course of the six months we worked together, but one of the most profound was captured by one of the senior leaders who stated, “Prior to this training, my idea of a leader was that of a taskmaster. My job was to get everyone to complete the tasks at hand. What I have learned through this training is that one of my primary jobs is to listen and allow people to contribute. I started doing this and found that they consistently came up with solutions that were at least as good or better than what I would have come up with, but they were much more bought in and committed to them than before.” 

It takes a great deal of humility to be a leader who elevates people rather than simply directing them to complete tasks. It also requires a tremendous amount of curiosity about oneself and others: ‘If having all the answers doesn’t make me an effective leader, then what does? What is my best contribution at this moment? How can this moment be an opportunity to help others to grow and to shine?’ 

Changing perspective is not easy work. It requires that we are first willing to consider the fact that just because something has always felt true in the past does not mean that it will always be true. We then need to have the courage to start getting curious about what our current paradigm is, where it came from, what about it still feels true and helpful and what does not, and how might it change. So while self-doubt can be detrimental for a leader, the practice of regularly seeking challenges and doubting that we will always have the best or right answer is a powerful act of courageous leadership. 

To learn about three of the tools that we used with leaders in this training, tune into our podcast


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