Authentic Optimism in the Face of a Leader’s Self-Doubt

Authentic Optimism in the Face of a Leader’s Self-Doubt

Every leader faces quiet moments where they wonder if they have what it takes to navigate the next phase of the organization, the current overwhelming challenge, or the messy personnel dilemma.  It is in these moments where a leader’s self-doubt is compounded by a lack of venues for sharing with others. 

The leader-follower relationship presents a challenge for the honest flow of communication.  Followers value the authentic leader, but they also may feel fear and significant stress if the leader gave full voice to their own doubt.  These factors can lead to leader isolation that is unhelpful not only to the leader, but also to the larger company.

The remedy is multifaceted, involving both strong external supports for the leader where they are free to by fully vulnerable, and authentic optimism internally that engages the team towards the solution.

Strong external supports could look like friendship, peer relationships, mentors or a coaching relationship.  The key is that these are completely safe relationships that are not connected to the people or the business of the company in a manner that could harm the leader.  These relationships should be one dimensional, allowing the leader to be fully vulnerable.

Internal relationships to the organization are typically multi-dimensional, where various roles and relationships may become conflicted.  Someone is a supervisor and a friend, a mentor and the person responsible for the bottom-line results of the company.  This is the sticking point for the leader, because every employee, even senior ones, are relating to the leader both socially and economically.  Thus, the authentic optimism is what is required of leaders in their moment of self-doubt. 

Authenticity is the transparent communication about the circumstances the firm is facing and the reality that the answer is not known yet or not clear.  “X has reshaped the market with the result that our sales have taken a hit.  We recognize these changing factors…”  Optimism isn’t a blind hope for the future.  It is a deeply rooted self-efficacy and belief in the team to respond to the circumstances, harnessing the resources of the company to solve the problem.  Optimism in this sense draws on past successes and overcoming moments of adversity to navigate a new situation. 

Authentic may involve the leader acknowledging they don’t have the answers.  This is important for the leader because it allows them to give voice to the their self-doubt indirectly.  They feel more authentic and known because of it.  It is important to the follower because it reassures them that the leadership sees the reality for what it is.  The optimism is important for the leader because helps the leader meet the challenge and invites the team into the problem.  It is important for the follower because it provides stability and hope in the midst of rising uncertainty.  Every situation is different, and the leader must consider their team, the severity of the situation and take into account all the contributing factors when they choose a course of action.  When appropriate, authentic optimism offers a helpful path forward that honors the leader and the follower, positioning both for effective contributions in leading the organization into the future.  It may look something like this…

“The recall on X as you know really has hurt our sales significantly.  Though I don’t have all the answers today, I have been working on a plan and I believe that together we can identify the right course of action to get us back on track.  We all will feel challenged in this moment, I know I do. But in these moments of great challenge are the opportunity for us to rise to our best. I am glad to face this challenge with you.”