How Can You Lead When You’re Unsure

I invite my students to begin the semester by writing about what would make this their Best Class Ever. You could think, I suppose about what could make this your best summer ever (need that be impossible?). Perhaps best ever “family summer,” or best ever “work summer.”

My class is, of course, on leadership, so no surprise many students wrote about becoming a leader. The two most common themes had to do with being comfortable leading with authority — many are graduating and see that they will soon be managing people — and with taking initiative and speaking out in class (interestingly 16 of 20 came out as introverts). Thus, the title: “how can you lead when you’re unsure?”

I was discussing it with Jen, and the point I made to her is that at bottom, these students want to BE something, be SOMEBODY. As we get older, we accept so many limits, and some of that’s good. But sometimes we too want to change things, want to lead, and really want — what these kids want — to be credible, looked up to, maybe even admired. But they — and we — are afraid (however submerged that fear is) of how we will be treated. Will they be judged by their classmates? Will they be able to handle a classroom or “boss” people older than them? Or will we be put in our place if we keep trying to raise any important issue to our boss, congressman, spouse, parent?

So, how, I asked Jen. How do you do it, when hidden insecurities keep you from getting into the stadium, let alone, getting up to the plate?

My answer at 57 is stunningly simple: forget about me, and think about them. What do THEY need? A challenge? A word of encouragement? A dramatic example put on the table at the staff meeting? A gentle question? A foolish hope? A planned triple-barrel-three-person confrontation about a truth they’d rather not look at (with a solution or two as to how to tackle it)? If you’re unsure — and I’m still unsure a few times a day — look OUT, see what you think they need.

I think if we do that enough, people will thank us, people will respect us, and one day people we say we are leading. Pay attention to what they need and you’ll surely

Lead with your best self!

  • I agree with the tenor of this writing; example; I am working with a woman who has come out of a terrible divorce, 15 years ago and it still haunts her . As a result she is rather unsure of her skills and how far she should go offering advice about running the organization. Fast forward 2 years; as a staff, each of us has made a concerted effort to praise her successes and not falsely; We recognize her strong traits and applauding them has made her even stronger; She is more interactive with the staff and outsiders; and we continue to tell her how proud we are of her. And not in a false mode; she has been doing wonderful and just needed some affirmation. I am glad that I work with a team that is this supportive of a fellow staff member who has been living under a cloud for a long time.

  • Frank,
    Work gets a bad name sometimes. How awesome that this experience becomes healing for her, she contributes more, and others have the experience of bringing out her best.
    What’s a better story than rising from the ashes? And outside Hollywood’s special effects, it generally happens as you describe it, over time, with help, and probably not in one straight line.
    Thanks for sharing the story!

  • Dan, I’m glad you addressed this issue. Like most folks, I’ve spent most of my life unsure and insecure — at least, after I got over my adolescent arrogance. For me, life became a lesson in humility, beginning with the day I started work, as a freshman, in the university communications department, and learned that my college lessons were NOT job training. Performing well in class (easy for me) and leading at work (not so easy) were vastly different and carried consequences and rewards infinitely more exciting and frightening. I had little success until I learned to stop whining about my needs and worrying about my achievements. When I concentrated on supporting customers and co-workers, they made it possible for me to address home plate and take my best swing. Later, when I had staff to manage, if I worked hardest at giving them support and credit for each success, they made me somebody I could like and abide.

    Now, at 65, I know who I am and I like me. Now, I have time to watch and wonder at those who unwisely squander their time and talents seeking reins of power, while screaming that they ARE SOMEBODY, making promises they cannot hope to keep, and trying to achieve leadership by bossing the very people they should be serving. Once I realized we are all lead by men and women who are unsure and uncertain at least several times each day, political and corporate rhetoric became cries for help — they became human again, and perhaps, forgivable. As for me, I no longer enter a crowded room and wonder who there will like me. I wonder who is there that I may like.

    • Mick,
      Great comment. Just great.
      When I think of our terribly dark days, pre-cancer, and read your words now, the change is absolutely startling. Congrats to you on all you have learned and all the ways you have grown!

  • I saw an interview of Ronald Reagan in which he was asked a similar question about how he was able to lead as president. His reply was that when he considered the presidency he was apprehensive, but when he realized how much of it is role playing it became easier for him. This can be joked about, since he was an actor, but understanding the role you are playing in an organization is as important as understanding the part an actor plays in a play. This has to do with knowing your boundaries, and well as your authority.

    • Mark John,
      I agree and agree it’s not a joke. The role “owes” people some things – like clarity, vision, focus, etc.. As long as you’re in the role you need to see that it’s getting delivered. Thanks for the thought.

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