Doubt as a Leadership Tool

The Importance of Doubt as a Leadership Tool

So, I was kayaking with a friend of mine this past weekend, and along the course of our trip the subject of doubt came up. We did not doubt why we were on a river when it was 90 degrees. We discussed doubt as a serious subject. He explained doubt this way: Imagine you are on a ship lost at sea; the only one on board. Being a good, experienced sailor, you plot a course navigating by the stars. Then, unexpectedly, for 3 or 4 days the weather changes to thick cloud cover and rain. You cannot see the stars but take your best guess and keep heading in the direction you think is correct. That is doubt.

That story got me thinking about the power of doubt as a leadership tool. When we think of our leadership, we think about experience, empathy, and confidence. Most leaders are convinced that they are in charge because they “know best”. They have a history of successful decision-making. They are confident. Sometimes, that confidence causes leaders to rely a little too heavily on their own instincts. They draw from their personal bank of knowledge, assuming they are right, (again). We navigate off course due to our arrogance and unwillingness to doubt that, heaven forbid, we could be wrong.

I’ve made a lot of good decisions in my professional life. I hired great, hard-working people, implemented good technology solutions, and even put my career on the line standing up for what I believed was right. I also made some bad decisions. I’d rather not bring those up. Some are still a little painful. Suffice it to say most of the bad decisions I’ve made involved me saying things that got me into major trouble. I know, shocking. A lot of my bad decisions were also made by me thinking I knew best and I did not need anyone’s input. Yep, I crossed way over the arrogance threshold. And I must tell you, most of the good decisions I made came after a serious wave of doubt; doubt strong enough to make me drop back and consult my network of teammates and peers.

So, please lose the arrogance. Have doubt in what you do and say. Here are a few suggestions:
Avoid firing back at irritating emails – I have a folder in my Outlook folder list named “Smolder Folder”. When I get an email that makes me mad enough to want to fire back with both barrels, I type up my response, caustic as it is, then I save it in my Smolder Folder. I do not allow myself to hit send until the next day. I sleep on it for the night. In the morning I reread the email and my response. If I still feel my response is justified and necessary, I send it. FYI – I started using email in 1978 (yes it was around then). To date I have never sent a single email from my Smolder Folder. I’m sure this strategy of self-doubt helped my career.
Solicit the Experts – For this one, it helps to have a great team of direct reports. When a serious situation arises, call in your direct reports and pose the situation. Ask what our next step should be. Let them talk first. Get their objective opinions out on the table. Give your opinion last and then check for consensus. Here’s the hard part; learn to accept that all of them combined are smarter than you are alone. The decision of the group should stand. Only in rare instances, when you have insider information, should you overrule the team consensus. Overruling too often damages team spirit, leaving the team feeling that their opinions are not valid. Worse, it leaves them feeling that you placated them by asking for opinions you never planned to consider.
Crowd Source – On big issue, crown source. Pull in other team leaders and members. Ask your peers in other companies. This is another benefit of networking. See for help on networking. The more people you know, the more resources you have on which to draw, and the better your decisions will be. Ask for advice. TAKE THE ADVICE.
Learn to Apologize – Even with these resources at your disposal, you will still get it wrong sometimes (or a lot). Learn to apologize when things go south. You will appear human, not weak. Your apologies should assume all the responsibility for the mistake, even if you went with the consensus. In the end, it was your decision. If things go well, praise the team or group of advisors for their great decision.

Arrogance makes bad decisions. Arrogance takes credit for the good outcomes and assigns blame for bad outcomes. Self-doubt will allow you to seek council. And when your network and teams know that you will share the credit and absorb the guilt, you will get as much help as you are humble enough to request.

As always, questions, comments and anecdotes are welcome. Hit me on the link below to leave a comment or send me an email at [email protected].