Insecurity in the c-suite: Do CEOs fear failure?
Friday, August 16, 2013
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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:
I’m disabled by an overarching irrational fear that I will fail."
just sitting here playing with broken toys. Why doesn’t my executive team get
it? Where did I go wrong?"
feel like I’m an imposter. What if they find me out?"
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
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
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
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 &
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.
"Seven ways to shatter your inner glass ceiling"
and more Women in the C-Suite blogs