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Can leaders redress their own fragile self-confidence?

It no longer surprises me that so many senior executives come to me with damaged self-confidence so high up on their confidential list of one-on-one coaching/mentoring priorities.

Just sharing a problem can be a step in the right direction


Success and profitability are never ever delivered in straight lines. Leaders need to expect to stumble across carefully concealed trip wires and booby traps along their path to progress. One starting point of mine introduces innovative techniques to help leaders reinterpret reconnaissance of their landscape, so that a positive outcome is a far greater certainty. It's so easy for us humans to see and interpret only what we expect to see and interpret, or only think and hear what we expect to think and hear. I term this negatively contriving filtering process 'mindfulness distortion' and a robust counter-attack is called for to extinguish this restrictive 'behaviour'. I draw on my arsenal of powerful psychological weaponry to establish a beachhead. Greater certainty and control over a given situation directly impact on self-confidence and self-belief. I am 100% convinced of this starting point to any truly impactful one-on-one intervention. However, I have also come to the conclusion that there are no 'magic bullets'; leaders intuitively seize on their preferred weapons of choice - people intuitively know which tools and techniques that I offer are going work for them. Providing a bazooka to blast away at every trial and tribulation simply does not work. Instead, leaders attach value to participating in healthy open debate about the pros and cons of alternative battleplans.

Did you know that more than 50% of UK businesses go pop in the first five years of trading? Frustration about 'people issues', of not being able to negotiate adequate lending from third parties, taxation, compliance, 'bad luck' plus the unexpectedly high cost of running one's enterprise are the usual excuses proffered by many for sudden downturns in fortune and/or ultimate business failure. Note my deliberate choice of the word excuses - businesses don't fail; it's the people who run them who usually make a string of regrettable (and often entirely avoidable) mistakes that cause an enterprise to go belly up. There is much practical advice to share on this subject.

Did you know that only a miniscule percentage of businesses survive beyond 30 years? There are all sorts of ways to avoid or safely defuse most dangerous situations that generation after generation of leaders mishandle and which can blow apart otherwise solid businesses to smithereens. Act decisively though, otherwise the 'dinosaur theory' takes hold. Most leaders benefit from a resilience boost particularly when managing major change(s). It is too easy to falter and lose one's nerve. Leaders discharge a disproportionately heavy barrage of emotional impact onto their colleagues and so it is important to maintain optimistic, motivational karma. If the boss is not confident about the way forward, how can she/he expect the rest of us to fall in line? Useful work may include reviewing and adjusting levels of risk across diverse aspects of the organisation. There may be significant merit in increasing risk as well as reducing it, to give one's team an evident advantage over one's competition. Sometimes it is necessary to put stubbornness to one side in order to attack the status quo head on - otherwise there is a not inconsiderable danger of having one’s profitability sabotaged and you may see your valuable asset suddenly implode before your very eyes. I believe it's OK to have changes of mind… just not too often, as that could trigger rebellion.

Some of my clients ask me "I wonder how it is that no one here has ever asked me that?" It's a well accepted fact that trusted business advisers do have an unfair advantage over insiders in this respect, as we can ask those 'innocent' sounding questions that others feel awkward about raising. I am fortunate to be able to place my finger on the pulse of a great many inspirational leaders. Through healthy curiosity and open debate we all learn.

If you or a senior work colleague is suffering from damaged self-confidence, please do get in contact by email for a no-obligation confidential discussion. I am here to help.

I list below a few of the contributory factors which can lead to dented self-confidence. But before you read on, please suspend any disbelief that the status quo can never change for you, since that dangerous defeatist attitude could become career limiting. Instead read on with an open mind and do please add a comment at the end of this blog to add to this discussion.

1. "I'm constantly under excessive pressure from our stakeholders to deliver ever increasing profit from an increasingly competitive environment"

Detailed circumstances may alter, though was there ever a time when it was not thus? There are different ways to handle stakeholders, which surely must be worth exploring. If you change your way of tackling a given situation (in highly particular ways), then the world around you magically changes at the same time.

2. "I lack any time for serious forward planning"

Of course different CEOs manage anything from a start up to a multinational, though regardless of scale, many tell me about the excessive time and patience needed to make safe never-ending imminent crises of one sort of another. They go on to explain that there is no time to properly plan ahead. Careless talk like this costs jobs. As the boss, we need to remain above the day-to-day detail so that we can safely defuse those IEDs buried in the road . Who genuinely feels comfortable about being micro-managed - it can project lack of trust through the ranks and the aftershock produces low level engagement. I have started to question the word 'empowerment' in this context; the problem may go deeper than pure empowerment. I may talk through a range of different situational leadership styles plus other helpful leadership 'behaviours' that one can draw upon when managing different types of personality and different situations – including the ‘leader-leader’ intent-driven style, which is highly effective inside most organisations. Forward planning is one of the great leadership art forms and should be fun as well as creative. However, strategic and commercial thinking needs to be based upon hard fact, usually at the expense of overly whimsical supposition. Plans can and should be modified as they are exercised, though without a clear roadmap, how on earth can any of us expect to arrive at a particular destination within an explicit timescale?

3. "I am unable to strike the right balance between 'process' and 'people' management"

Most leaders have a natural strength in one or t'other. The people side produces greatest grief more often than not and is an area that can ultimately destroy an otherwise extraordinarily talented boss. I have a multitude of thinking to share with every commander-in-chief on this potentially incendiary topic.

4. "My chairman terminated my contract, so I now wonder if I am unemployable"

5. "Am I a complete fraud?" Many leaders tell me that being in charge can be desperately isolating and that is certainly a contributory factor behind some people's steady attrition of self-confidence; more than a few of my clients had pondered if they were a total fraud. I do detect that more middle management are being fast-tracked so quickly to positions that they worry are beyond their level of competence, without sufficient coaching/mentoring or other forms of practical support. For example, one of your super stars might well be an exemplar within their area of technical competence though lacking that vital 'balanced scorecard'. So is there an even greater need right now to prepare more of one's middle managers ahead of promoting them senior leadership positions? I have recently begun share this thought with some of my long-term clients and have been asked to run a number of pilot small group seminars that encourage active participation. When assessing people's career values, personal development usually comes out towards the top of most people's list of priorities or values - interestingly PD almost invariably scores higher than straight remuneration.

6. "Over-worrying keeps me awake at night"

Many CEOs admit to being so concerned about delivering year-on-year growth that it keeps their hyperactive minds awake at night. 3am seems to be the preferred time to wake up and sweat. This is a hopeless situation and can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Did you know that just two nights on the trot of six hours sleep equates to being clinically drunk? Can one seriously run a successful business in that state? I apply a variety of methods to resolve this quandary and none involve the use of alcohol or prescription drugs.

7. "My life has become one long interruption. I can't do anything properly any more. Everything needs to be done in a rush"

It's too easy for leaders to flit from one detail to another and have no time for anything of substance. Re-learning how to prioritise effort in new ways usually provides multiple quick wins.

8. "I used to enjoy my work, though no longer. My work life balance is shot. I need a holiday right now though I would dread returning"

Sometimes we all need to give ourselves permission to take a week or two away to recharge our flat batteries. Time off work provides valuable time for self-reflection and regenerates vim and vigour to tackle those stubborn workplace problems. Overdue ‘difficult conversations’ no longer seem quite so difficult. 'Impossible decisions' suddenly seem possible. How can leaders ever out perform when they are just plain 'knackered'? - though my father once told me not to use the ‘K’ word as it meant something different in previous generations. We all need to keep refreshing our thinking and choice of language if we are to continue to deliver tangible value beyond expectation to our clients (and to our staff).