When You’re Doubting Your Leadership — and Others Are, Too


When you believe you aren’t doing well as a leader and others are sharing feedback in line with this view, it can be overwhelming. In this piece, the author offers practical steps you can take if you’re in need of a comeback. By focusing on self-reflection, enlisting support, and thoughtfully examining your role within the company, you’ll be able to determine your next steps and how you need to grow as a leader.

There is no such thing as a perfect leader. If you’re leading teams or an organization, you’ll make mistakes — sometimes big ones. While perfection is not attainable, too many big mistakes can cost you your credibility. If you’re a leader with a credibility deficit, it can be hard to come back, especially when you and your teams have a negative view of your performance.

If you’re in need of a comeback, there are steps you can take to navigate the situation:

1. Look inward and self-reflect.

Before you start judging yourself against others’ measuring sticks, turn inward. No matter how badly you feel about your performance, don’t ruminate: pause. While it can be very easy to spiral and think of all the “what ifs” and things that could have gone better, these thoughts won’t help you make decisions and changes in the long run. Ruminating makes problems seem larger and more unmanageable than they actually are. Put a time limit on your ruminating thoughts; I recommend actually using a timer. Your self-assessment could be clouded by what others are saying about your leadership and work, so you won’t get clarity by thinking the situation to death. I coach clients to take 10 minutes for ruminating. When the timer goes off, it’s time to move on and brainstorm solutions.

2. Take a breather.

Sometimes it’s good to take a more pronounced pause. If you have the time to take a break, go on a quick trip to clear your head. If that’s not feasible, the next-best activity is walking. Take a walk without listening to a podcast or book. I recommend that clients take one slow, leisurely walk a day, with no noise or stimulation. Look at the trees, the houses in your neighborhood, or any other sights in your path, and let your mind wander. Let things bubble up. You’ll gain insights into how to be a better leader and what actions to take. Make sure to have a place where you can record these ideas as you walk — the more specific the idea, the better. For example, you may record a voice memo: “By the end of the week I will meet with the sales managers and go through their specific successes and issues. I will not let anyone reschedule meetings. I will report what I learn to leadership in our Tuesday meeting.”

3. Get the facts. 

Once you’ve taken a deep look at yourself, it’s time to gather external data so you can know which metrics you as a leader are aiming for — and if your teams’ negative assessments are well-founded.

First, look at your reviews and think through your one-on-one meetings. Ask yourself:

  • What areas do I need to shore up?
  • Has one area for improvement come up more than once?
  • Have I made an honest effort to make the changes leadership has suggested?

Many leaders trip up here; they resist making difficult changes and put them off until “tomorrow.” Begin by looking at changes you’ve resisted making. Ask a lot more questions of your manager so you can begin shoring up your areas of improvement. If you took a 360, use this source to get even more clarity. Bolstering your developmental areas is where the detailed work has to happen; create a very specific plan to move forward. That means taking every area that you need to focus on and creating benchmarks to measure success so you’ll know whether or not you’re improving.

4. Evaluate your role within the company culture.

Perhaps a culture clash is contributing to your lackluster leadership performance. Does your style of management fit what the company needs? For example, if you’re in a culture that values getting work done quickly with some mistakes instead of thinking through every issue, your job is to get the work done and forget the extra analysis. If this isn’t your style, recognize that you must adapt to the company’s stated culture and work values. Simply saying “This is who I am” won’t get you the changes that you want. You must accept that there are times you will need to make changes, whether you like it or not.

5. Expand your sphere of influence.

Examine where you need to work on influencing and making deep connections with your peers — and just as importantly, your directs. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where can I make better calls for the group?
  • Do I come to meetings as prepared as I need to be?
  • Do I ask the uncomfortable or hard question?
  • Have I cultivated relationships not only with peers and others whom I “like,” but also with peers who are more difficult to influence?

The more you cultivate your sphere of influence, the more positively others will view your leadership. You’ll also better understand the personality dynamics at play in your workplace and be more capable of evaluating the feedback you receive from others.

6. Enlist outside support.

You’ve done internal work to bolster your leadership, and you’ve enlisted help from within the organization. Now it’s time to look externally. Do you have a mentor you can lean on for learning and advice? If no one comes to mind, look through your LinkedIn profile. Find someone outside the office who can give you candid, unfiltered ideas and solutions.

7. Re-examine your fit.

Unfortunately, even after taking dedicated steps to improve your performance, the fit between you and your organization may not be right. Perhaps it’s time to look for a new opportunity. You can only decide this after a lot of thinking and work, and it’s never an easy choice. Take your time; don’t make a snap decision. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this the right organization for me?
  • Do I want to be a leader within this organization?
  • Am I happy and having fun?
  • Do I want to grind and work through these issues?

When you believe you aren’t doing well as a leader and others are sharing feedback in line with this view, it can be overwhelming. The most important actions you can take are to pause, and then work through a process to determine your next steps. By focusing on self-reflection, enlisting support, and thoughtfully examining your role within the company, you’ll be able to determine where you need to grow as a leader.