Self-Doubt: How Leaders Can Overcome It

Self-doubt always shows up the strongest at your lowest points, and you must overcome it to succeed. 

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” - William Shakespeare.

  • Maybe you just lost the bid to a huge project, or your best team member just quit as you were trying to manage an unhappy customer who left a bad review online. 
  • All of a sudden you begin to wonder if you have what it takes to lead. Your self-doubt grows and negative follow suit. On certain days you feel great, and then on certain days, your inner critic goes into overdrive.  It feels like you are failing massively. 
  • You forget all the skills and abilities you bring to the table. Achieving success seems like a dream in your current leadership role because of your self-doubt.

The struggle with self-doubt is real, and you are not the only one to struggle with it. Self-doubt happens to everyone, business leaders, young leaders, and even established leaders. When you are in charge and, you face the day to day runnings of your organization, it can be a daunting task not to feel overwhelmed with self-doubt as you experience the challenges that come with leadership.

Signs of Self-Doubt In A Leader

Self- doubt prevents leaders from taking actions necessary to lead effectively. Signs of self-doubt in a leader includes:

  • Lack of motivation to act
  • Second-guessing of decisions
  • Hesitancy to problem solve or make decisions
  • Diminished resilience to setbacks
  • Decreased trust among followers and team
  • Limited ability to influence followers and convince stakeholders

Triggers of Self-Doubt

It's near impossible not to experience self-doubt because there are triggers that will ignite this feeling regularly in the business world.  As a result, learning how to overcome self-doubt is a vital key to your success as a leader.   

For this reason, identifying the triggers helps you to prepare to recognize self-doubt promptly.  You are then able to deploy the strategies in your arsenal to deal with and overcome self-doubt when it rears its ugly head. So, here the five triggers of self-doubt.

1. Social Comparison

Social comparison theory is the idea that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. According to Festinger,  people have the drive to compare their abilities and opinions. 

Some research shows that if you compare yourself to others, you may find the motivation to improve, or it may leave you with feelings of deep dissatisfaction and self-doubt.

In some way, comparison can be helpful if it motivates you to take productive steps, but in other ways, comparing yourself to others can be destructive.  When social comparison leads to negative thoughts and beliefs, it not only affects your mental health or self-esteem but also decreases your ability to take productive steps as a leader. It becomes a vicious cycle if you don't nip it in the bud.

2. Unmet Expectations

Have you ever been in a situation where you rolled up your sleeves to work, given your best shot only to find out that your deliverable failed to meet the expectation?

Another word for unmet expectations is a failure, and failure is never a positive feeling. Unmet expectations happen all the time, and frankly, unavoidable. Expectations entertain the ideas about how you would like situations to turn out. Unfortunately, you can not control all the factors in life or at work. People and situations are constantly changing, as a result, some things are bound to fail. The key becomes how you view failures, and how you respond to them. 

Another form of unmet expectations is when your team members or employees fail to meet set expectations, and you begin to doubt your ability to lead or delegate. The moment you start to question your own ability to lead based on the failures of others, you are spiraling down the steps into self-doubt.

3. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a form of insecurity that is common among successful people. The impostor syndrome is known to afflict not only the rich and famous but many successful executives as well.

Clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen defines impostor syndrome as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”  

If you are a leader, you have what you need to succeed.  You should expect to face challenges that require you have to recreate, innovate, or step out of your comfort zone. However, it should not lead to negative beliefs about yourself or your expertise.

4. New Challenges

You just got promoted to be the director of engineering for an instrumentation technology company. You have been the regional director of the two of the three largest regions and have acted for the previous director many times over the last five years. Also, you have managed multiple projects for the company.

But, when asked to oversee the entire engineering department for the company, you freaked out. You do not think you know how to lead a large group of people. What do you think is happening to you? Self-doubt!

Self-doubt often occurs when you are stepping out of your comfort zone to take on a new role, a new department, or a new function. It is normal to experience certain levels of apprehension with new tasks because it matters to you to succeed.

However, if your inner critic goes to overdrive, and you begin to doubt your abilities even though you have what it takes to succeed,  you are giving in to self-doubt triggered by the necessity to learn the ropes or lead a different group of people. 

5. Bad Experiences

Did you get blamed before for an outcome and it felt horrible? Have you ever promised not to allow a bad experience to ever happen again and you find your self trying to keep to that promise thereby always overthinking or second-guessing?

It can be hard to separate yourself from bad experiences, and it can impact how you react. Sometimes, these experiences may be a second-hand situation that you witnessed happen to someone close to you or someone you respect. No matter what, experiences should help you and not hinder you. Learn from it and move on. 

Questions To Ask Yourself To Combat Self-Doubt

Emotions are at the core of your motivation, discouragement or self doubt. Emotions are not bad.  To be clear, they are vital for communication and decision making.Research shows that damage to the part of your brain responsible for your emotions leaves you with the difficulties with decision making.

Your goal should be to discover what the truth is and then to take logical steps towards achieving your success. Subject your emotions to a series of questions to learn what the facts are. Here a few questions you can ask to begin to address self-doubt as a leader. 

  •  Who are am I comparing yourself too? Make a list for yourself.
  •  How is my social comparison affecting me? 
  •  Is social comparison motivating me or destroying my confidence? 
  •  What effect is social comparison having on my mental health and productivity?
  •  What steps do I need to take to break the vicious cycle of social comparison?
  •  What unmet expectations have I set for myself?
  • What lessons have I learned from your unmet expectations
  •  Are my expectations realistic? 
  •  Is this the only way to think about this situation?
  • What skills and knowledge do I bring to this challenge or role?
  • What resources are available to me as I take up this new role?

How You Can Overcome Self-Doubt

"If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced." - Van Gogh

When you fail to make the call, bid for that project, advertise your services, or object to the proposal, all because of self-doubt, you let doubt triumph and success take a back seat. The practices suggested below will help you conquer your self-doubt, and become a more confident and successful leader.

1. Practice Self-Reflection

Self-reflection helps you learn more about yourself. You gain a better understanding of your emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. Self-reflection leads to growth because as you learn more about yourself, you begin to see your strengths and areas you can improve on. You also learn what not to do. 

How you do this: 

  • One way to do this is to keep a self-reflection journal and to create the habit of having regular self-reflection times.
  • When your inner critic is whispering self-doubt,  remember to take some time to question those negative thoughts and feelings even if it is just a mental exercise.

2. Practice Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a powerful tool for personal and professional development.  Self-awareness begins with self-reflection. Upon self-reflection, you become more conscious of your strengths and the purpose of your role. It will allow you to approach tasks and challenges with a better understanding of how to succeed,  what pitfalls to look out for, and how to communicate more effectively so that you lead with purpose.  

How you do this: 

  • Identify your strengths and understand how it looks like in your role.
  • Identify the projects or tasks drains your energy and makes you experience the most self-doubt. Can you outsource it to someone else? If not, strategize the steps you need to take to get it done and do not overthink it.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

 Self-compassion means to be kind to yourself. Do not be unreasonably hard on yourself.  Studies show that there is a strong correlation between self-compassion and positive mental health, such as reduced anxiety and greater life satisfaction, as well as higher self-esteem. Self-compassion encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view. 

With self-compassion, you diminish the power of your inner critic, which often contributes to the feelings of self-doubt.  Also, practicing self-compassion can increase your motivation to recover from failure, the opposite effect of self-doubt, according to a 2011 study conducted by the University of California

How you do this: 

  • Forgive yourself for mistakes. Identify lessons from your mistakes and failures, and move on.  Aim for your best not perfect by creating realistic goals. 

4. Have Self-Worth

 Merriam-Webster defined self-worth as a feeling that you are a good person who deserves to be treated with respect. With self-worth, you are intentional about who you allow into your inner circle. You know to invest in your self and to care for yourself. 

Also, when you have self-worth, you will respect your personal and organizational values, and it will stop you from overthinking certain decision-making process. Consequently, you spend less time dwelling on self-doubt because you will have the basis to make some difficult decisions in your role as a leader. You will not waste time questioning your decisions. Besides, positive feelings of self-worth tend to be associated with a high degree of self-acceptance and self-esteem. 

How you do this: 

  • Think about how you would treat a person you respect and begin to deal with yourself the same way. For example, do not think negatively or speak badly about yourself. Controlling your negative thoughts and speech starves self-doubt.
  • Study your organizational values so that you can to make references to it when faced with a decision that triggers self-doubt. . Ask yourself if the matter at hand is in alignment with your personal and corporate values.  Make your decisions based on your findings.
  • Have a self-care routine.
  • Audit your circle of influence and analyze how they affect you.

5. Practice Self-Reliance

Becoming reliant on yourself is not only powerful but also vital. By building your self-reliance, you develop what you know, and you can trust yourself to rely on those skills and knowledge to know when to exercise it, and when to ask for help.

If you practice self-reliance, you would not waste time overthinking, second-guessing, or ruminating. Self-doubt will decrease, and your confidence will increase.  Stop looking to other people for affirmation or confirmation. Do your research, seek advice, and expert help, but ultimately, you know that it’s your decision. 

How you do this: 

  • When confronted with self-doubt during your decision-making process, set a time frame to do your research, and get external input. Based on your findings, decide swiftly within the set time frame.
  •  Celebrate your wins. Review results, identify lessons learned, and move to the next goal. 

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


Therefore, to become a successful leader, you must learn to deal with self -doubt and not allow it to hold you back. Understand that experiencing self-doubt is not all negative.  It has a humanizing effect because it helps you to reassess your values and your intentions. The key is not to allow self-doubt to dominate your thoughts and actions. 

Ultimately you need to develop strategies that will boost your confidence and counteract the harmful thinking of self-doubt. Get books that will help, reach out to trusted advisors, mentors, or friends who can help you and hold you accountable. Invest in a coach if you continue to struggle or if you want a neutral party.

Finally, do not wait too long to deal with your self-doubt. The earlier you know how to overcome self-doubt in your career or business, the easier it will be to lead effectively.

About the Author

Hello, I'm Oyinkan Akinmade, a Confidence Strategist and a Certified Professional Coach. I help professionals share their expertise with confidence and ease. Feel free to connect with me on Twitter.

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