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Insecurity in the c-suite: Do CEOs fear failure?

Friday, August 16, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Jan C. Hill

Could it be that executive leaders who appear boldly confident are wracked by personal doubt? Aren’t the men and women who spend their days in the c-suite immune to the human foibles that plague most mere mortals?

As an executive coach, I bear witness to the inner world of many organizations’ most senior leaders, and I can confirm that executives doubt themselves more often than you might think.

Here are recent CEO confessions I’ve heard:

"Every day I’m disabled by an overarching irrational fear that I will fail."

"I’m just sitting here playing with broken toys. Why doesn’t my executive team get it? Where did I go wrong?"

"I feel like I’m an imposter. What if they find me out?"

"We all scream in different ways. I just scream softly. No one hears it."

These quotes are from male executives. All those ads and movies with images of tough men crept into my psyche. Silly me. It turns out that no one is immune to insecurity, and those who look like tough cookies on the outside often have some marshmallow on the inside.

I don’t mean to be glib. The raw intimacy of these revelations has moved and challenged me. It gives me hope when high-level leaders are willing to engage in the vulnerable inner exploration required for personal growth.

I share these confessions for three reasons:

1. It’s helpful for senior leaders to know they aren’t alone in feeling vulnerable. Executive jobs are lonely enough. The questions I’m asked most often after an executive spills the beans are: "Am I the only one who feels this way?” and "Do you ever hear this from anyone else?”

2. It's normal to experience the paradox of confidence and vulnerability. How you navigate that paradox is what really matters.

3. It’s important for executives to know how to use their powers for good. Whether we like it or not, we’re all ruled by our emotions. If a senior leader isn’t aware of how her inner feelings are influencing her actions in the outer world, she can inadvertently create a toxic culture from the top down.

All too often, I’ve seen c-suite executives make two critical mistakes that have led to dangerous repercussions for them and their organizations:

First, refusing to solicit or adapt to honest feedback.I’ll never forget a leadership retreat where an executive said with a grin: "I’ve been getting this same feedback for 40 years!” In that moment, he made it clear to his team that he wasn’t interested in their input and he wasn’t going to change.

Another executive dismissed the feedback I’d heard and defended himself by saying it "came from an unhappy minority." I’m happy to say the vocal majority saw to it that he was fired for his refusal to effectively engage. Don’t be taken down by the hit you don’t see coming. Ask for and act on clear behavioral feedback.

The second critical mistake made by senior-level executives is creating a team of "Yes People.” To get the feedback you need, you have to surround yourself with credible, trusted advisors who care enough to tell you truth.

Example: I recently conducted a 360-degree review with an executive and learned that she had — inadvertently — begun creating a "yes culture." The organization had just gone through a difficult year. Her intense focus on the road ahead did not allow time for real human connection with her team -- she had alienated them. While her team still respected her, they gave her low ratings and stopped telling her what they really thought.

The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to take the time to build a strong leadership team. Hire people who are better than you are in one way or another, and create an environment where you can all explore strategy, give and receive feedback, and have fun in the pursuit of aggressive goals.

Jan Hill is CEO of Hill Enterprises Inc., a consulting, coaching and training company established in 1990. She previously served as a manager with Procter & Gamble.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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