In praise of self-doubt
Psychological gurus, business and educational experts all preach the modern mantra, “Believe in yourself.” However, unquestioned adoption of this modern philosophy may produce indulgent, lazy, arrogant leaders who don’t adapt and persistently serve themselves.
My personal experience includes both empowering self-belief and paralyzing self-doubt.
Tom Petty captures the experience of many in, “Saving Grace.” He sings, “You’re confident but not really sure.”
If you grapple with self-doubt, keep reading. If you don’t grapple with it, you’re probably dangerous.
Leaders press through the paralyzing effects of self-doubt.
#1. Self-doubt has its benefits. Robert Sutton in Good Boss Bad Boss says, “The best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence, but a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility saves them from turning arrogant and pigheaded. Bosses who fail to strike this balance are incompetent, dangerous to follow, and downright demeaning.”
#2. Believe in yourself enough to bring self-doubt with you into your decisions and commitments. “The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it’s not without doubt but in spite of doubt,” Rollo May.
Leaders press into paralyzing self-doubts. Fear of making mistakes is healthy when it raises intensity and alertness. It’s unhealthy when it controls you.
#3. Move through self-doubt with deadlines. Give yourself reasonable time to explore options and then pull the trigger. “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand,” Raymond Chandler.
The modern mantra, “believe in yourself,” has its place, however it’s no substitute for the positive power of healthy self-doubt that doesn’t paralyze but, motivates, humbles, awakens, and opens mind and heart.
How should leaders deal with self-doubt?
Related article: http://leadershipfreak.blog/2010/11/16/10-reasons-youre-an-overthinker/
Good morning Dan.
Excellent topic to start the week off. The encouraging “believe in yourself” especially helps new leaders as they face resistance to their leadership, resistance to change, and naysayers from all angles.
Healthy self-doubt also helps these same new leaders for (as you say) without it you are “dangerous”.
I prefer to see “healthy self-doubt” more as seeing and listening to various perspectives *as you proceed. For “thinker” types on the Myers-Briggs personality scale, self-doubt may feel dangerous yet thinking through different perspectives seems smart. For “feeler” types, the healthy self-doubt will ring true.
Same idea – different ways of looking at it.
Have a great week. I will be blogging this week on a formula for employee engagement. Hope you will lend your leadership eyes to it!
Good morning Kate,
Thanks for the good word!
It’s a gift to see and listen to others while having enough courage to move forward. “as you proceed” nicely said.
Thanks for bringing Myers-Briggs to the equation.
Great week to you and I’ll be visiting your blog to learn about employee engagement. http://katenasser.com/articles/
Best to you,
Kate is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read her bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/kate-nasser
Great post Dan. To add some spiritual thoughts I think self-doubt is a good thing. The less we depend upon self and rely upon God the better. I can be over confident and too sure of myself. I need a holy dependency upon God and allow Him to direct my life. This is not strange, but a very balanced approach to life and spirituality. Letting God help us means allowing the scripture to be a part of our counsel and life-style.
Thanks for bringing a spiritual component to the discussion. I appreciate that. Your comment moves vague “spiritual” to practical in your last sentence.
Best to you,
Emotional self doubt
I once called upon a prospect who was very clear what would happen if he didn’t get a handle on his business sales (they were plummeting due to the gas crisis, he sold trucks). There was no logical doubt about it – after meeting with me the bankers were there to discuss liquidation.
As we were discussing I kept hearing hesitant phrases like “Well, I don’t know” and “Well, I’m not sure”.
I understand now that he was struggling with emotional self doubt not logical self doubt.
Sad ending to that story was his emotional self doubt led to the business closing – he was paralyzed by his emotional doubt.
Love how you specify “emotional self-doubt.” Thanks for a sobering story.
Best to you,
Alan is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/alan
Good morning Dan and LF community. The quote that stuck out most to me from this post was: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand,” (Raymond Chandler)! There is certainly truth in that.
Related to your question, “How should leaders deal with self doubt?” I think about when the seeds of that self-doubt are sown (childhood). The workplace to me sometimes feels just like the childhood school yard or playground, with all of its childish issues, just with people dressed more professionally and dealing with higher stakes.
Some leaders who are particularly struggling with self-doubt need to do some personal work (with a therapist, for example) to put that self doubt in its proper perspective, get “unstuck,” and gain the mindset/ability to move on from a more adult perspective.
Thanks for joining the conversation. I love that you take us back to childhood. Bringing the parenting component to the conversation is a great addition.
All the best,
Paula is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read her bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/paula-kiger
I believe ” Doubt is defeat and dilemma is death”. The way to turn doubt into confidence is to learn, experience, re-learn and re-experience. Doubt arises out of fear and fear arises out of inaction. So, the best way to control doubt is to act. Action alleviates fear and so the doubt. Most of the time, doubt arises due to lack of exposure, experience and low tolerance power. People do not ready to face opposite view so they struggle to overcome their doubt. The other element that promotes doubt is fundamental knowledge. Person with strong fundamental knowledge usually do not have doubt.
I also feel that doubt offers opportunity to improve. Overconfidence prevents opportunity to improve. So, occasional doubt is a friend that challenges your existing knowledge. The other doubt booster is others perception. When we believe on others perception, we doubt our existing knowledge. So, believing in oneself isolates others perception.
I agree that one should believe in oneself. Even incompetent believe in oneself. So, what is new in self believing. The true driver of believing in oneself is humility that is missing in incompetent person. And when humility is missing, it inflates arrogance, ego and selfishness. So, incompetent person is confident all the time. He will say ” I know it “before you finish your talk.
Love your perspective on this conversation.
I’m with you. There is an experience/knowledge/exposure aspect to this. The more experience, typically the less self-doubt.
Your addition of “doubt offers opportunity to improve,” captures a key value of healthy self-doubt. Last Saturday I was thinking how what I know gets in the way of what I should learn.
Best to you,
Ajay is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/ajay-gupta
Another great discussion Dan. What I have seen is that as leaders, the more responsibilities we shoulder and the larger the team that we lead, the greater the burden of doubt that we often bear. As your team and responsibilty grows that concern for others can become crippling. People are depending on you and if your decisions are wrong – often others are the ones that pay the price. If you are a servant leader, doing what you do for the benefit of others you accept this burden.
Conversely, if you are a leader who is affected by hubris and have no doubts, you may find that the doubts that you never had – or the doubts you dismissed – were the warning signs of a rough road ahead.
Like many of the things we write about and experience as leaders, the key is balance. Acknowledging our doubts and dealing with them keeps us alert so that we can avoid the pitfalls, while wallowing in self doubt will bog us down.
Thanks for the opportunity to join the discussion.
I’m always glad when you stop in and leave your insights for the community.
Your first sentence is a kicker! I’ll add that failure seems much easier to deal with than success. 🙂
Have a great week,
Dan, you probably have material for a whole new post here.
I’m not sure that failure is easier to deal with than success.
When the team succeeds – the leader succeeds, but for many leaders, failure is personal. It is much easier to accept (or forgive) failure in others that it is for the leader to forgive himself or herself. And then comes the guilt – even if you did everything possible to avoid failure. It may not be rational – but emotions like guilt rarely are.
Good morning Dan!
Your post today touches on interpretations that admittedly I’m not that comfortable with. I find that English, for all its wonder, is still limiting. Here is what struck me.
The modern “believe in yourself” that you refer to (that folks are trying to tap into) is actually “Know Thyself.” It is not about egotism. Believe in yourself is not just about believing in being strong, but also in embracing and believing in what is weak too. It is facing “flaws and all” and truly knowing your limits. It is faith in your potential, believing in what you can do and what you can’t and what you can become. It isn’t believing I am the best, end all be all to the race of humanity. Succeed or fail, this is the source that folks are stabbing at.
I agree with Kate on distinguishing healthy doubt. Healthy self-doubt raises questions for analysis. For instance, in parenthood, good-hearted parents (and all leaders) will always wonder did they make the best decisions for the right reasons. Are they doing enough? Do they do the right things? (I’m not talking about dwelling on these, but certainly experiencing them.) The parents who never question, who never struggle with decisions or never wonder if their choices and behaviors are appropriate are the ones we usually worry about.
However, a lot of “self-doubt” is actually fear. And there is no fear in love. “I doubt I’m capable,” or “I doubt anyone will support my idea,” for example. Fear must be faced, embraced and passed through. Not allowed to live like a cling-on or parasite. Balance yes, but distinction as well. Ungrounded self-doubt is not the healthy kind.
Looking forward to a great week!
You sure said a ton in a short space.
I appreciate your clarification of “believe in yourself” nicely said. You have great perception skills.
Thanks for bringing love to the mix… Love casts out fear.
All the best to you,
Julia is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read her bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/julia
I assume I know more than 95% of my readers. This keeps me confident enough to put myself out there in the first place.
I assume the other 5% of my of my readers can run circles around me at light speed. This keeps me humble enough to work harder. It also attracts those who gently mentor me.
Confidence without arrogance will attract both types of readers, and help establish many interesting friendships.
I like your approach. From my point of view…all of my readers know more than I do, depending on the topic. Thats why blogging is so much fun.
Confidence to put myself out there… I think about that myself. I’m trying to just do what I do. I leave a lot unsaid, hope for a conversation to start and then learn stuff.
I think one reason people comment on my blog is they see I’m not “the” expert on much of anything.
Thank you for joining the conversation and sharing yourself with the community.
Best to you,
Hiya Dan and all!
Wonderful thoughts indeed.
Let me add my bit, too;-)
When I am in doubt I ask myself, if what I am about to do is the path of the heart? If I mean it sincerely and if I want to leave impact larger than pleasing my ego by acting upon emerged situation?
And that is why, I am between doubt and confident determination each day, when I do things which I have never done before. When I stick out my neck in public, with a blog post or speech or opinion on something I think could have been done differently. But, firstly I will show my own example how I have acted on the specific situation and then I am ready to deal with outcome and lesson from it.
Once I decide to press “publish” button, or speak up I need to be confident and responsible for the decision myself and ready to deal with the outcome without doubts.
Keeping beginners mind and learning each day, with resilience to often failures is the mind-set I run on;-)
I know I don’t know;-)
Have a super cool week guys!
Thank you for sharing your own story with the LF community. It’s useful and I respect your efforts.
“Keep the beginners mind” I love that expression.
I wish you the best,
Great post! An article on Forbes.com cited the 3 reasons leaders fail under pressure. You guessed it, overconfidence made the short list of common traits leading to failure. Interestingly, the push and pull of fear and desire is cited as one of the 5 traits leading to success:
Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for leaving a useful link to one of your posts. I went and read it. Very helpful.
Have a great week.
You hit it out of the park with this article Dan! I will be sharing the link to this post with many in my circle of influence (small as it may be!). Thanks again for all you do with Leadership Freak!
It’s always great to read a good word. Very encouraging. thank you for your support. It means a great deal to me.
Dan: Great post. So many leaders fall into the trap of thinking that if they have self-doubt that there must be something wrong with them. Others have so much self-doubt that they become paralyzed. It’s a fine line that gets walked daily, but it is a healthy balancing act.
I think it’s important to have enough self-doubt that the leader is open-minded and interested in what the people who surround them have to say. Gathering information and really listening for the gems in the ideas and thoughts of their co-workers and team mates.
I love the idea that a time limit needs to be set around the gather of information, though. This is an area of improvement for me, because I love to learn and expand my knowledge base. It often delays my decision – so I have been practising my own mantra “Ready, Fire, Aim”. It creates discomfort, but also creates the stretch.
Thanks for the good word.
The setting a time limit on information gathering and decision making has helped me tremendously…In the past I spent way too much time spinning my wheels and in the end not doing anything.
I’ve learned that seeking for the perfect solution, answer, program or whatever is death to progress. Perfection kills progress.
I’m thankful you left a comment today.
Best to you,
Self-doubt and yes fear also are part of the human condition. Would you want a leader who was unable to empathize with that same condition in those who follow him. In working through our own doubts we as leaders can develop tools, strategies and solutions that will help others.
Great point… the lessons we learn when we work through self-doubt are lessons others can enjoy… powerful
Thanks for your comment.
Best to you,
Dan, you wrote, ‘deal with self-doubt’…rats, guess that means denial is not on the table.
As others have noted, Kate nailed it, when it is healthy, it brings new perspectives or an alternative vision which leads to more options.
When it is not healthy, that is different, then is self-doubt locking you inward too much to be effective?
Negatively, it can also be a by-product of getting stuck in downward spiral of too much feeling, rather than balanced with doing and thinking. That is one way out, do more and get a well thought out process and move on.
Not to say that doubt couched in a questioning mind is a negative, rather it is a very desirable trait. A case of depth and duration perhaps. An open, questioning, expression of doubt can be part of the model for ongoing learning and of course showing that we are human.
Dan, Thanks for raising the subject. Two thoughts: 1- I like what Jim Collins says in G2G on the Level 5 Leader…..Personal humility and professional will; 2- I always want to have someone to hold me accountable and will say the last 10%.
Even in this case the truth is always in the middle. A careful balance between confidence and self-doubt is the optimal situation, even if it’s hard to come by, as one tends to be overconfident or just too self-doubting most of the times.
I, myself, perhaps tend to be a bit over confident, without even realizing it.
“If you grapple with self-doubt, keep reading. If you don’t grapple with it, you’re probably dangerous.” Dan that line Rocks!
You’re on point here as people do get lost in this belief in self and we have seen the results in some of the corporate failures. I would be very nervous if someone said they do not have the healthy self doubt. That implies they are not questioning their decision and thought process and as you say that is a dangerous person.
I agree with the line “If you grapple with self-doubt, keep reading. If you don’t grapple with it, you’re probably dangerous.” There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Self doubt keeps you on the right side of that line. Those who never acknowledge an error dehumanise themselves. Great post, thank you.
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