Embracing doubt: a coaching approach to empower leaders

24th October by Karen Smart

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In the world of leadership, doubt is often seen as a formidable adversary to success. It creeps into the minds of even the most accomplished leaders, sowing seeds of uncertainty and self-questioning. However, it is essential to recognise that doubt is not an enemy to be vanquished, instead it can be a powerful catalyst for growth and better decision-making.

In this article, we explore the concept of doubt in leadership and how a coaching approach can help leaders not only manage their doubts, but also harness them to perform at their best and boost their confidence.

The nature of doubt in leadership

Doubt in the context of leadership, emerges in various forms and at different stages of a leader’s journey. It often manifests when leaders are faced with significant decisions that carry far-reaching consequences. Such instances can be fraught with ambiguity, complexity and a gnawing sense of uncertainty. Leaders may find themselves questioning their judgement, their abilities or even the very path they have chosen to tread.

Indeed in the inaugural Leadership Doubt Index just released by Robin Pou Inc., a leadership development firm, it was found that 97% of leaders have questioned a critical aspect of their leadership, despite high levels of overall confidence.

One common manifestation of doubt is known as imposter syndrome and leaders suffering with this will constantly doubt their own confidence from fear that they will be exposed as frauds, despite their accomplishments. This pervasive self-doubt can be a significant barrier to effective leadership.

In the Leadership Doubt Index, the top three triggers for successful leaders to question their own abilities were: managing a huge workload (28%), a team's inability to perform (24%), and industry disruption (22%). Suffering from doubt was found to have significant impact on a leaders' effectiveness to innovate (61%), create a compelling vision (59%), and delegate (58%).

The power of doubt

While the experience of doubt can be unsettling, it also possesses transformative potential. Doubt can serve as a crucible for self-reflection and self-improvement. It can prompt leaders to question assumptions, seek alternative viewpoints and engage in a deeper examination of the decisions they make.

One of the key roles of a leader is to adapt to changing circumstances and navigate unchartered waters. Doubt can be the impetus for this adaptability. It can drive leaders to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers and to seek input from others. In doing so, leaders can access a wealth of diverse perspectives which can lead to more informed and innovative solutions.

The coaching approach and navigating doubt effectively

So, how can leaders harness the power of doubt rather than be paralysed by it? The answer lies in a coaching approach which focuses on self-awareness, learning and growth.

A coaching approach can encourage leaders to engage in regular self-reflection. This involves introspective practices such as journaling or meditation to explore doubts, fears and their underlying causes. By acknowledging doubt and its sources, leaders can gain clarity on their challenges and take proactive steps to address them.

A coach can also act as a trusted sounding board for leaders. They provide a safe space for leaders to express and explore their doubts openly and candidly. Through constructive feedback and support, coaches can help leaders reframe their doubts and see them instead as opportunities for improvement rather than barriers.

Doubt can often arise in the face of making important decisions. Coaching can equip leaders with effective decision-making skills like critical thinking, problem solving and risk assessment. These skills enable a leader to approach decisions with renewed confidence, knowing they have a systematic process to rely on.

Confidence is the antidote to doubt and a coaching approach works on bolstering a leader’s self-confidence by emphasising their strengths and accomplishments. Executive and team coaches can help leaders develop a more positive self-image and belief in their own abilities to handle the challenges.

In addition, those leaders who openly acknowledge their doubts can set a powerful example for their teams. This transparency fosters a culture of openness where team members can feel comfortable sharing their own doubts and ideas. Such an environment promotes collaboration, psychological safety, innovation and better decision-making.

Moreover, in this VUCA world of work, an agile mindset is crucial for leaders. Coaches can assist leaders in embracing adaptability and resilience and help them to see doubt as a natural part of the journey and encourage them to view it as an opportunity for growth.

Doubt is an integral part of leadership and it can either hinder or enhance a leader’s performance. By adopting a coaching approach, leaders can learn to navigate doubt effectively, turning it into a powerful vehicle for change and growth. Instead of seeing doubt as a sign of weakness or as being a lack of credibility, it should be embraced as means to strengthen leadership capabilities.

In the end, the most effective leaders are not those who never doubt themselves, but those who recognise doubt as a valuable companion that challenges them to be better, to seek other perspectives and to make informed and principled decisions. In that way, doubt becomes a stepping stone, rather than a stumbling block on the path to leadership excellence.