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"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.
It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.”

– Warren Bennis

The Journey to Self-Belief

19 May 2020

A Different Conversation With Ourselves – Inviting Transformational Leadership

Written by Loes Fokker

Loes Fokker is Psychology Counsel at The Argonauts
She is a senior executive coach and corporate psychologist.
Connect with her on Linkedin

If I would show and express my true feelings, my worries and insecurities, I would risk everything. I am not sure if I ever can be myself in the board meetings.

I think living with this pressure is just part of my job. I have had severe sleeping problems and fears for years, I could have been diagnosed with burnout a long time ago, and I can’t share with anybody how I feel. If I had, I would have been out of my business. I would lose everything. So I closed off any feeling of security, hid them from the outside world. I deal with my fears on my own.

Introduction

H

ow often do I hear and feel the pain in the voices of C-level executives confiding their deepest worries, describing the challenge of high-performance expectations and struggling alone with self-doubt about leading their companies. 

Leaders deal with pressure on a daily basis. It’s part of the job description. But the personal toll is not to be underestimated.  Sometimes I worry about society normalizing and even rewarding the levels of stress and fear that my coaching clients accept, at least for a while. They tell themselves it belongs to leadership and the needs of their companies. But it takes a high toll on their mental and physical health. It reduces their quality of life. Dr. S. Cook-Greuter, a renowned expert in self-development and actualization, states that the biggest challenges and risks for a leader is the chance of a depression. This depression is in the form of guilt for not having fulfilled goals and ideals and losing a sense of self-worth when life isn’t going as expected. Leaders tend to overestimate their control, while feeling over-responsible and self-critical.

It’s not just the inherent and constant change and insecurity of running a business. It’s not only the fear of judgment of upholding one’s role as a leader. There is often an even stronger force making us doubt and question ourselves. Ironically, it’s the same one that has the power to protect us from the same judgment, guarding us against our ingrained beliefs and childhood fears. It’s our own mind. The expectations and judging voice of ourselves can be turned into our strongest supporting force once we take the journey to Self-Belief a bit further.

Dirk de Souza, a psychologist and performance coach working with some of the planet’s top athletes, shares the secret of sustainable high performance: “The only thing that is sure is that everything will change. Security can only be found within.”

So, what is this inner security that we can access and can help us on our leadership journeys? In my opinion, every inner journey is an individual one.  We all walk alone even as we travel together. Yet we often go through the same challenges in life. We are not alone in our search for a new language, a sense of identity and a psychology dealing with these challenges. It’s something we can talk about, and work out together. Our CFO, Arthur Davis, put it this way: “I have many challenges, but actually I have none, since they are all made up in my mind”. In an open and trusted environment when we allow each other to share authentically, a new conversation can support each of us on our journeys to transformational leadership. 

I have many challenges, but actually I have none, since they are all made up in my mind.

Arthur Davis

The leader’s journey to Self-Belief – From achievement to fulfillment

Having listened to the stories of my mentors, inspiring leaders and ancient voices, there is a common perspective that takes the pursuit of self-belief forward. It’s the curiosity to know more, and to accept what we don’t know.

Yes we are human. Yes, we make mistakes. And those errors force us to grow. Taking self-belief a step further means that acquiring the confidence that leads to achievement and success does not take us all the way. We also need to know that we don’t know. We need to master the inner confidence to find solutions when we are lost and “at sea.” We need to find the inner compass, individual and collaborative ways to navigate to reach our goals even in the absence of certainty.  Leaders need to accept the opportunity to become open and vulnerable, acknowledging our blind spots, exploring our shadow sides. 

Something wondrous happens when we start to be curious and accept the unknown as a mystery and potential. When we allow ourselves to share honestly. To be vulnerable. So that we can learn, and stay open. So we cultivate a space for that safe harbor within.

The ability to appreciate and trust oneself, independent of perceived failure or success, creates a fulfilling self-belief. As EE Cummings describes: “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

In my professional practice, and as well in my own personal life, it happens often that it is someone else who points out something beautiful within me, something I might not have seen or acknowledged or appreciated before. The power of sharing openly in a group or community reveals these moments. In these moments, we become aware of our unknown selves. The conversation touches childhood wounds or forgotten wishes we all carry within. The words of another open us to love ourselves a little deeper, to help heal that wound. Seeing what was hidden, putting our finger on it, allows things to resolve just by allowing us to see it, and for us to be seen by another. Often a new voice, unexpected, comes to awaken us to ourselves. 

The new awakening voice is one worth listening to. Creating a new space for creativity from self-belief. Turning our deepest fears into excitement. And it can come from anywhere, unexpectedly, at any time and any place. It comes in conversation. Or it starts a conversation.

Self-belief comes not only from our confidence of reaching a goal, of being in control. It does not derive only from achievement.  It is rather an inner knowing, with all that you have, that even if you don’t know now, you will find out. It is an inner awareness of your beauty and your shadow, your strengths and your weaknesses. Even in the face of extreme uncertainty, it’s your 100% confidence that YOU will never give up on yourself. It is a belief in your own recreation: maybe you cannot create the desired outcome every time. But you can control how you feel about something, and the meaning you give something. Thereby you create and control your own happiness and your own self-fulfillment. 

If we believe in ourselves in this deeper and more authentic way, we can also believe in others as well. In conversation with others, we embrace diversity,  embrace wholeness. What becomes possible when accepting more authentic differences to be present in your world? No matter your religion, politics, or social status, accepting new voices into our lives, and our inner dialogue, indeed multilogue, confers creative power to lead. It is curiosity and wonder about the unknown, the yet to be discovered, which helps lead us into our future. Not alone but with others alongside. Daring to be more visible allows us to be more authentic, more whole, and more transparent. 

Our Chief Philosophy Officer, Christoph Quarch, shares about the evolution of leadership: “When we live from our depths, we are completely with ourselves and stand in our power and blossom to vitality. We then no longer identify with concepts or images adopted from others, but are fulfilled in our depths. We are at peace with ourselves and experience our actions, our work and even our whole life meaningfully. We are free of egocentricity but instead draw from healthy self-confidence. We are alive – and enthusiastic. A new dimension of being human.”

What new conversation is possible from a renewed sense of self-belief?

We asked Argonaut Geo Hanzlik, a leading performance coach from New York , to share his perspectives on curiosity and self-belief:

Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

e.e. cummings
T

his gem of a quote says a lot about leading humans. It’s instructive. It’s patient. It’s fundamental. It might be the best cultural statement never used.

“Once we believe in ourselves…” What a powerful place to start a meeting. What a wonderful place to begin quarterly planning. Or a difficult decision process. 

The power to reveal the human spirit comes because we are curious and begin asking new questions outside the box. 

Immediately we set the table for an interesting conversation where we might learn about ourselves and about the other. With this new information, we can make discoveries and decisions based on new information that can move our teams and companies toward their goals.

When I ask myself this question, as to whether I believe in myself, I gain a feeling of grounding. I’m located. And when I find that I do in fact believe in myself, I feel settled and clear. My breath lengthens and my shoulders relax. I engage with the world around me with a keen sense of interest, of wonder. I can risk being curious.

And if I check in with myself and notice that I don’t believe in myself, then I have the opportunity to investigate why. I remember someone asking me, “If you don’t trust in yourself, then who can you trust?” That’s a dangerous spot to find ourselves. 

Do you believe in yourself? If we are going to have any conversations about authentic or transformational leadership, then let’s start with the basics. Be absolutely honest about our current level of self-belief. We all run up and down the spectrum of belief. Some moments we have it, other times we don’t.

If I fake it and act falsely, others will smell it. That smell comes through our words, our tone, our body language. Overcompensation to make up for a lack of belief is unnerving.

A lack of self-belief is accompanied by anxiety. Anxiety is a physical response to the perceived threat. We perceive something bad will happen in the future. When we are anxious, neuroscience shows, we lose our ability to think innovatively. Flow expert Steven Kotler says we can’t make the big leaps between ideas that allow for out of the box thinking. We listen through a limited filter that’s simply attempting to mitigate the threat.

So we attempt to control and force outcomes out in the world—with our people, our strategies—rather than stepping back to assess our own level of self-belief. When we are anxious, our attempt to control outcomes is overblown and never creative. 

A lack of self-belief also accounts for a great deal of toxicity across teams. When leaders distrust themselves, they naturally distrust others. They may say “I trust you,” but it’s disingenuous and the lack of trust spreads through the organization. Good people with great talent end up unsure about their work, unsure whether their team’s work matters. No one has any fun. People start looking forward to their weekends and vacations more than they should. And resenting the people for whom they work. 

You can hire an expensive organizational consultant to do a whole shakedown of the company. At the end of the day, you’ll likely come back to the notion that the leader doesn’t believe in him or herself. Which then hits the VPs, who then don’t trust their heads. And on down the line it goes. Someone, at the end of the day, ends up yelling at their kid or kicking the dog.

And once you’ve discovered this, what do you do?

This is the challenge facing leadership today. It’s a lot for a leader to stand up to his or her own lack of self-belief. And to explore it, both within a disciplined internal practice of self-reflection like meditation or breathwork, and an external practice of getting real feedback from others, in authentic conversations. It’s a legitimate question: when you don’t believe in yourself, are you the leader you’re proud to be?

Want to read more from Geo Hanzlik and Loes Fokker? 

Read their interview about leadership in times of crisis, how these times affect ourselves and our companies

Develop and train your Self-Belief

Do the exercises

People tend to be less open because of fear of judgment. But being open creates room for Growth. Some questions to get you started:

  • What is something you are hiding from the people around you?
  • If you were to stop hiding, what is the best thing that could happen if you trust that there are no negative consequences? 

If you are not a Friend of the Argonauts or Argonauts Member yet but would like to get access to exercises and further materials, please get in touch. 

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