Stepping up to your full potential

Negative thought patterns and an intense inner critic can take a leader from self-doubt down a path to sabotage, says author and leadership coach, Brenda James. She tells Management what leaders can do to develop the personal skill of self-belief.

Do you think most leaders have an element of self-doubt about their ability to lead?

I think for some it comes and goes, for others it’s a constant. In my experience in leadership coaching, it is very common for a leader to set a goal at the beginning of coaching to gain more confidence. I’m repeatedly surprised at the lack of confidence and intense self-doubt experienced by new and veteran leaders alike.


Is this a natural human response to taking on great responsibility, or does it tend to only be women who have that imposter syndrome going on?

Typically, women admit to imposter syndrome more freely but no, it is just as prevalent among men. Along with greater responsibility, it is the unpredictability of human behaviour, the pressure of holding on to your people in a talent short market and the need to be mindful of the team’s mental well-being that all contribute to this.


How have you seen self-doubt sabotage leaders – are you able to give examples of how this happens?

Negative thought patterns and an intense inner critic can take a leader from self-doubt down a path to sabotage. If a leader has a negative mindset about themselves, often minimising their achievements or expecting to fail, they can be resistant to trying something outside their comfort zone that could lead to growth.


Has this self-doubt been part of your leadership journey?

Most certainly. For a long time, I never thought I had anything to offer despite having decades of experience and would often question what I said in meetings or other group settings. My inner critic would have a field day.

The more I thought about it, the worse I would get. It was a little like a game of chinese whispers with myself, getting further and further from the truth – with the truth being that I was way more capable that I let myself believe.


What tangible things can a leader do to develop the personal skill of self-belief and use it in the workforce, and in their own lives?

First and foremost, expand their own level of self-awareness. There is great value in pausing to observe and reflect about how they think, feel and behave.

Then realise that they have the power – and choice – to change. They can rewire their brain. It’s just a matter of knowing how. Neuroscience is a topic I touch on in the book.


Are you able to give some concrete examples?

A few things you can do to get started:

•    Examine and reflect on your thoughts daily for seven days to look for repetition and patterns. Until you know what is going on in your mind, you lack the power to change it.

•    Become more aware of your emotions and what specifically triggers them. Also, be mindful that emotions are catchy. What do you want your team to catch? Take responsibilty and choose carefully.

•    Keep a file tucked away somewhere – maybe on your mobile phone – of compliments you have received from colleagues, managers or clients. On the tougher days when your inner critic is active, go back and read them.


If there was just three pieces of leadership coaching advice you would give to a leader, what would they be?

1.    Do whatever you need to do to develop your own level of self-awareness; internal, external and emotional.

2.    Set meaningful goals and take consistent daily action toward them. When leadership life gets easier, keep going. As Zig Ziglar says “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

3.    Putting your own oxygen mask on first is more than just a metaphor. Self-care is crucial.


And why those three bits of advice?

1.    Getting to know yourself deeper – self-awareness – is often overlooked in business settings, yet it is the solid foundation from where to start the journey towards developing more self-belief. Confidence stems from inner strength. Inner strength stems from self-awareness.

2.    Often, when we find a technique that works and life gets easier or we get the results we were searching for, we stop doing the thing that works. Then, like a boomerang, our inner critic reappears. Success is about consistent action.

3.    Self-care is not selfish, it’s self-preservation. If you have a particularly bad day where you feel down, fearful or full of self-doubt, have a think about what you have been eating, whether you have been exercising and your quality of sleep. These things contribute hugely to our mental well-being.   


Brenda James is the author of BELIEVE How new leaders step up and into their full potential, published by Grammar Factory  (RRP:  $24.95 Publication date:  6 August 2022).

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