Leading Through Self-doubt

Lincoln had his dark moments. Churchill spoke of “the black dog” that often plagued him during trying times. It would by unusual given today’s economic maelstrom if business leaders, also didn’t succumb now and again to self-doubt. However, there’s a way to make this work for you.

August 24 2009 by Sue Paulus


When CEOs or other executives present inferior performance, avoid critical issues, or make poor decisions; our tendency is to assume incompetence.  A knee-jerk reaction by their board could result in the firing and replacement of that individual, causing great upheaval and cost to the company.  However, consider that a lapse in performance could be attributed to individual self-doubt rather than incompetence.  Consider, also, that this “malady” is treatable.

On virtually a daily basis, executives make critical decisions that directly affect the success, or even the survival, of a company.  When faced with the enormity of decisions like mergers, acquisitions and disposals, allocation of resources, major expenditures, pressure to maintain profitability, and new business development, most leaders will, understandably, be under a great deal of pressure and will sometimes doubt their ability to make the right decision.  Pressure breeds uncertainty, which fuels self-doubt. 

Self-doubt can lead to poor decision-making.  Situations can develop whereby an executive, through personal self-doubt, may avoid difficult decisions, take a lower risk profile, or cover up damaging facts and data, all of which could lead the company to miss an important opportunity, harm their reputation, or worsen their market position.  Dr. Peter Hill, former CEO of Harvest Natural Resources, notes that this crisis of confidence often causes CEOs to “focus on what is easy and non-threatening, ignoring critical things that may be going wrong, and facing difficult issues.”

Yet, this situation is rarely recognized or discussed in the board room or corner office.  It is swept under the rug as one of the “soft” issues with little or no understanding of its far-reaching effects.  Hill adds that “No one out there can claim to not have self-doubt.  Yet unfortunately boards and others don’t recognize it, handle it, or look for it.”

CEOs and other leaders will often go to great lengths to deny or hide self-doubt, assuming that to show any degree of vulnerability will cause employees, board members or even shareholders to have concerns about the future of the business.  This could lead to a drop in share price, a morale crisis within the organization, or even job loss.  They also often feel a strong sense of responsibility for their employees and know the stakes are high if they fail.  As Dennis Manning, CEO of the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, noted, “If I fail, maybe 50,000 people will fail with me.”

The current economic environment contributes to the problem, with market volatility becoming the norm in most business arenas.  Managing during turbulent and uncertain times makes business leaders prone to feelings of stress and loss of control, making them even more vulnerable to the power of self-doubt.  These fears are heightened by a corporate environment where CEO turnover has reached an all-time high in recent years. 

A 2007 Booz Allen study revealed that turnover of CEOs worldwide increased by 59 percent between 1995 and 2006.  In those same years, performance-related turnover increased by 318 percent. In 1995, approximately one in eight departing CEOs was forced from office. Yet in 2006, that number increased to nearly one in three.  In addition, the report suggests that CEOs are under increasing pressure from shareholders.  Investors have begun to demand more, often pressuring organizations to remove CEOs who have been underperforming.

“To succeed in this new era, CEOs are finding that they must embrace and reflect the concerns of board members, investors, and other constituencies, including employees and government. Those who ignore the new rules do so at their peril,” said Bahjat El-Darwiche of Booz Allen. This environment fuels more fears and self-doubt as executives find themselves facing more scrutiny and higher stakes if they make mistakes or don’t live up to expectations.

Working in this pressure-cooker environment is challenging for executives, and is made worse by the fact that others in the organization often look to them for solutions, guidance and reassurance.  They try to be decisive, confident, unfailing, and strong at all times, feeling they need to have all the answers.  In their minds there can be no place for self-doubt or failure, and they are afraid to be seen as incompetent.  So when leaders find themselves in the grips of self-doubt they will often experience high levels of anxiety, stress, mood swings and sometimes depression. 

Some of our greatest leaders have suffered under the weight of self-doubt.  Throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln was conscious of his own defects and was plagued by self-doubt.  As President, his limited military experience and early wartime defeats could have easily overwhelmed and derailed him.  However, his sense of purpose and focus on meaningful work, as well as strengthening his military leadership, kept the demons at bay.   Winston Churchill often spoke of his “black dog” when referring to his feelings of worthlessness and depression.  Leaders who experience self-doubt or fear of failure, will find themselves in good company.

It is important for executives to remember that they’re not alone in their feelings of self-doubt.  Every leader in every organization has experienced self-doubt and fear of failure at some point in their careers.  Yet everyone has the choice of whether they let it control them or whether they wrestle it to the ground and ultimately overcome it.

Ryushi Wada, President of Obun Printing Company in Japan, describes the torment he felt as a result of self-doubt.  “I have experienced self-doubt several times since becoming president of Obun Printing.  It was hard to live with my inner misery at such times, which I could not show openly,” said Wada, “I used to think that I should, by no means, let employees realize how I am feeling. What will happen if banks notice it? I was truly tormented by the fact that I could not show my honest feelings to people around me and every time I was in self-doubt, misery just overwhelmed me.”  However, rather than allowing his self-doubt to destroy him or the company, Wada chose to seek the advice of others.  As Wada sees it, “If we forget to seek wiser ideas and better ways, we cannot go further.”

The negative power of self-doubt can be neutralized when executives, like Wada, enlist the help or advice of other professionals.  It is important to see others as resources to expand one’s understanding of issues and offering potential solutions.  Executives need to realize that seeking help or advice is not weakness, simply good leadership.

Any failure by an executive can fuel self-doubt.  However, companies can circumvent this by creating a culture that sees failure as constructive and potentially beneficial. If fear of failure is too strong, then self-doubt will set in, but if failure is seen as universal and a growth opportunity, then it can be used to generate success. 

Virgin Atlantic is a company that has used failure constructively.  Joe Ferry, Virgin’s Head of Design, could have been paralyzed by self-doubt after leading the design of new business class sleeper seats in 2000.  Within a year of introducing the new seats, British Airways had introduced their own improved sleeper seat.  After customer complaints and BA’s superior product, the company recognized the seats were a failure.  Instead of firing Ferry, however, Virgin decided to put his valuable learning to use and assigned him to take on the $127 million project of overhauling the airline’s upper-class seats.  The new seats were a success.  The leaders at Virgin saw the value in failure and learning, thereby mitigating some of the potentially damaging effects of self-doubt.

Another way to lessen the impact of self-doubt is to avoid latching on to negative thoughts or, even better, to make them work positively as a learning tool.  We all come equipped with self-doubting tendencies yet the healthy executive recognizes these feelings, realizes they are normal and then refuses to give in to their destructive power.  They stubbornly refuse to let those negative thoughts consume them.  If setbacks occur, an effective leader will stand up, brush off and move forward, using failure as a learning opportunity and a launching pad for success.

Hillary Clinton is a good example of a leader who refused to let failure or self-doubt hold her back.  Even her critics will attest to her resilience and determination despite very public setbacks.  During her campaign, Bill Clinton noted her failed healthcare reform during his presidency “She tried and, as everyone has told you in this election, she failed. We failed. I failed,” he said. “The next president, unless he or she is locked in a closet for four years, will sooner or later fail at something, just like we all did. So what you need to know is how will your leader respond to failure,” he said. “What did she do? She went back to work.”

One of the major challenges for executives is that they are surrounded by people who are predisposed to their own viewpoints.  They often feel isolated and that they have no one to talk to about critical issues.  As Chris Richardson, former CEO of Schneider Electric’s North American division, noted, “I realized that fundamentally my relations with people would never be the same. Everyone has an agenda when they talk to you. You become more isolated, and you can never again be one of the guys.” 

Many executives are hesitant to approach board members with their concerns, fearing the board will view them as incompetent.  This is exacerbated by the practice in many U.S. companies in which CEOs also hold the position of Chairman of the Board.  This arrangement makes it difficult for a CEO to find anyone to turn to when they need advice.  Without the mentoring relationship of a Chairman, the CEO becomes an island surrounded by others who are unable or afraid to provide needed guidance.  In fact, the Booz Allen study pointed out that in 2006, all of the underperforming North American CEOs in the study with long tenure had either held the additional title of Chairman or served under a chairman who was the former CEO.

It is important, therefore, that executives find high-level confidantes with whom they can share their concerns and frustrations.  Seeking advice from peers, who have no agenda or stake in the company, can provide a much-needed outlet and source of reassurance.  This can alleviate self-doubt as well as the stress and anxiety associated with it.

Boards can also help reduce the negative effects of self-doubt by fostering an environment that provides a sounding board and allows executives to seek help when needed.  The board should make the Chairman available for open discussion and mentoring to the CEO.  Executives could also enlist the help of an experienced psychologist or coach who is trained to advise in this arena.  A coach can help identify the causes and behaviors that contribute to self-doubt, and work with the executive to develop strategies to overcome it.

Conquering self-doubt also requires that leaders be able to identify their own unique skills and be reminded of past successes.  It’s too easy to undervalue our own talents and not recognize them as significant.  Executives must also be honest and realistic about their strengths and limitations and try to surround themselves with people who have complementary skill sets.  This added bench strength will empower and strengthen the whole team and provide individuals and organizations with its best chance of success during difficult times.  As H. Jackson Brown suggests, “Hire people smarter than you.” 

After taking the helm of a struggling IBM in 1993, Lou Gerstner could have easily succumbed to the misery of self-doubt.  He was brought in to achieve the monumental task of turning around a failing computer giant, yet he had very little high tech experience himself.  He even admitted that he hardly knew how to turn on his computer.  So Gerstner made sure that he surrounded himself with some of the best technological talent he could find and then set about rescuing the world’s largest computer maker.

Too often the repercussions of executive self-doubt are not recognized or addressed until companies are at a critical juncture.  But why wait until the negative effects of self-doubt affect the balance sheet, or result in dismissal, or failure of the company?  If identified early, companies can seek solutions. If ignored, self-doubt becomes a powerful and destructive force for individuals and companies alike.


Sue Paulus suepaulus@gmail.com  is an executive coach, consultant and psychologist, who works with executives and senior managers to help them overcome  personal barriers to success.