Wise leaders practice continuous encouragement. They presume that their people are more discouraged than they appear to be; more uncertain than they profess to be; and more insecure than they seem to be.
It’s not our nature to voice our self-doubts to others. And rarely do we voice them to leaders.
Yet people who never have self-doubts are either arrogant beyond measure, narcissistic to the core, or totally oblivious to their short-falls.
But being aware of our self-doubts is one thing. Expressing them to others is an altogether different matter.
Early in life we learn to be guarded about confessing self-doubts. Such confessions rarely evoke a helpful response.
Most typically the response is dismissive: "Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. You’ll do just fine." Unfortunately, dismissiveness does nothing to probe the roots of the self-doubt or to develop strategies for getting beyond it.
On other occasions a confession of self-doubt closes doors of opportunity. Managers, supervisors, and decision-makers don’t always make careful distinctions between occasional self-doubts (which is normal) and doubting yourself in general (which is unproductive).
Once they see you as doubting yourself in general, they are unlikely to entrust you with critical or career-advancing responsibilities. Most people therefore avoid this risk by keeping self-doubts to themselves.
Leaders, especially, can undercut themselves by speaking candidly about self-doubts. People want leaders who exude self-confidence. Any talk of self-doubt is therefore fraught with peril, since it threatens the leader’s reputation for self-confidence.
As a consequence, we quickly learn that being open about our self-doubts pays few dividends. If admitting to our self-doubts is not taken seriously by others, or if it demeans us in their eyes, why bother? Thus, outside of perhaps a very trusted circle, we typically struggle with self-doubts in silence.
Meanwhile, we put on a demeanor of absolute self-confidence, void of any self-doubt whatsoever. And we learn to wear the mask convincingly.
Leaders see this mask on its most artful display. After all, people want their leaders to see them as competent, confident, and accomplished. If we ever put on our best face, it’s around our leaders.
Building People Up
Knowing this, insightful leaders refuse to be seduced by the display. They know that unspoken self-doubts probably lurk behind the mask. So they presume these self-doubts in their communication. To this end they studiously avoid language that might aggravate underlying self-doubts, even in the least.
Instead, they choose language that is up-building. And they never relent in offering encouraging words. Self-doubts don’t take holidays. Neither should encouraging words and actions aimed at countering those doubts.
The word "encouragement" literally means "the act of building courage into someone." We think of courage as the antidote to fear and paralyzing anxiety. It is no less the antidote to self-doubt.
Good leaders dispense the antidote generously. They know that self-doubt is always a silent enemy in their midst. To disarm this enemy, they go out of their way to maintain a spirit of encouragement in all that they say and do.