The leadership power struggle is real

What happens when we don’t trust ourselves?

Leaders have a whole host of excuses available to prove why they aren’t successful — and why they can’t move their business forward:

The competition is bigger
Someone else has an unfair advantage
We’re just a start up
The client can’t make up their mind
There’s not enough time
It has to be perfect, or different
They have more budget
We’re a charity
Brexit
Trump

With every reason why our business isn’t growing, we are give power to someone else. We become a victim who surrenders control to whatever outside force we make big enough in our minds to never want to tackle.

Through coaching senior leaders in Europe, the US and Asia I have started to see a pattern emerge. From tech, to new food and luxury brands, to charity organizations, what stops leaders feeling successful is the same. We might think that the context of their companies would mean these very different people in different parts of the world would struggle with very different problems. Yet no matter what size or sector their business is, CEOs and founders are confronting a very similar challenge.

For the leaders I’ve worked with who feel they cannot create the company of their dreams there is one belief that holds them back:

Leaders believe that they are not able to make the right decisions — despite knowing exactly where they want their business to go.

They have a vision of success, but they do not trust themselves to make the decisions that matter. This changes the power dynamic facing leaders today. The power struggle is real, but is not just about giving power to others.

We’re losing the battle to ourselves.

We give our power to the part of each of us that sees ourselves as small, incapable and insignificant. To the part that doubts we are worth it. To the place inside that calls us out for being the imposter who does not deserve success.

This lack of trust in ourselves shows up in a few different ways:

Anxiety

We suddenly feel like “everything” is going wrong, and get drawn back in to the day to day operations in an effort to “save” the business. We know best because we’ve been there before — but really it’s just cozier in our comfort zone, where the tough decisions don’t actually need to be made. And even though we are comfortable here we feel stressed and overworked.

Boredom

We disengage with the business, going through the motions. Everything is cruising along, and rising to the challenge is going to take a bit more effort. So why bother? We don’t believe we deserve that next step, so acting indifferent is a wonderful self defence mechanism. We feel tired and restless.

Limbo

Our vision is clear, but we feel stuck. The fear is present and we cannot make the big leap. Everything we’ve achieved to date seems irrelevant and the success we see ahead of us unattainable. We’re frozen but not because we can’t move forward for any external reality — we just don’t believe that we should have what we know we want.

The problem with the power struggle is that leaders cannot see that they are battling themselves.

The story they are telling has a formidable external foe, with a dramatic plot. They feel they are in a conflict, but do not recognise that their biggest demon is inside of them. They no longer trust themselves.

That makes sense, considering that what we are told about running a business focuses on the external challenges:

We are told that startups face difficulty in gaining traction and that success only comes when the business is funded. The power goes to VCs — yet it is the decisions leaders make that lead them to attract funding, and how investment in them is spent to scale the business.

We hear that charities struggle because of lack of resources and talent. A charity is perpetually unworthy — their story is that they have been given an unfair advantage vs their private sector counterparts. Ironic as charities seek to serve the disadvantaged. Yet it is the leadership that sets direction and makes choices on how to grow impact. If the leaders do not believe in themselves, how can they be confident in their organisation?

Established companies are often in a constant battle for relevance. Whenever I hear leaders say their goal is to “be number one” or “kill the competition” I see a lack of belief in who they are. Instead of authentically offering something of exceptional value, these leaders need validation. The external struggle is a mirror of what they face inside — how can they be number one? How can they be seen to win?

Leadership can be lonely. In the US between 20–40% of Fortune 500 CEOs report having used a coach. Coaching provides the leader with a safe space to explore these challenges, with the goal of increasing their capacity to make decisions that align to their values. Without coaching, leaders rely only on their past experience to guide them, which may not offer the right conditions for them to grow their skill.

At Within, our method focuses on giving leaders the clarity, belief and confidence to grow the business they love. When faced with anxiety, boredom, or limbo, ask yourself these questions:

How clear am I on what I want?
How much do I believe I can have it?
What level of confidence do I have that it I deserve it?

The voice in our head that doubts our success should be listened to — in order to learn and strengthen our skills as leaders. It doesn’t need to win the power struggle, but only through facing our doubt do we grow and create the business we really want.

Brand strategist, retired music producer, and exec coach for CEOs around the world. Fellow of the RSA. Founding partner of Within People. withinpeople.com