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The paradox of trying too hard at leadership

Often, leaders who want to inspire others end up over-focusing on themselves

Dalia recently joined a new company as their CEO. She was prepared, even over-prepared for the role. She had done her homework, worked hard to get to know the people and understand the environment, and had set out a clear vision with a strategy to get there. When Dalia is at her best, she listens with deep curiosity and is completely focused on the context, the people and the issues. But when we met, things had become more stressful. She was exhausted, and frustrated with the pace of change. She was struggling with several members of her team and her reactions were getting increasingly defensive. As Dalia’s self-confidence wavered, she turned her energy inward. Her radar was working at full-capacity to notice and neutralise threats. She was listening, but subconsciously, using much of her energy to ‘hear’ what people thought of what she was saying, how she was coming across, what she may have done wrong. But making things about her meant that she started telling herself a single story where she may have had the leading role, but was definitely not a hero.

She had constructed an impossibly high bar, and her focus was about her own ability to meet the challenge. Her strengths in being reflective, analysing situations, and striving to constantly learn and develop, which normally helped her to build her success, started to create their own challenges.

Through my coaching, I have worked with countless clients who can fall into this trap. The desire to be an inspiring leader can get sabotaged by their fear of not making the grade.

Can Imposter Syndrome or having ‘something to prove’ draw your focus inward?

It seemed counter-intuitive until I realised that there was a clear pattern, especially amongst leaders with varying degrees of imposter syndrome (first described by Clance and Imes in 1978), or leaders with something they feel they need to prove. The pattern goes something like this: Their greatest professional ambition is to lead, inspire, and develop others and they have been successful/lucky enough to get a leadership position. They are not sure that they are ‘good enough’, or for some reason not fully confident in their role. Their attention starts to focus inward, watching and evaluating themselves to make sure that they are meeting and hopefully going way beyond expectations — after all, they expect a lot of themselves. They look for evidence from others about how they are doing, making it ‘about them’. The problem is, leading, inspiring and developing others is not about them — it is about the wider context, the people, and the specific challenges. Because they are focused inward, they can greatly reduce their capacity to notice everything else going on in any situation and miss opportunities to support and lead their teams and organisations.

What are the missed opportunities?

When people begin to focus too much on themselves as they strive for excellence in leadership, they may hear things as a personal attack and react to that instead of having a deeper understanding of the pain or frustration of the person across from them.

When the pace of change is slow, or people are not moving in the direction agreed, leaders can blame themselves and let frustration build, not fully focusing on looking outward to notice what might be getting in the way and refining their strategy. Although few of us like to admit it, some people might become overly invested in being ‘right’ to bolster their confidence, instead of quickly noticing when an idea is not working and adapting it. Alternatively, so worried about being wrong that they become overly risk averse and miss key opportunities. And the list goes on.

When we are overly focused on our own insecurity as a leader, we can become blind to the systems and people we want to lead.

So what does ‘good’ look like?

I have had the good fortune of encountering a few people who, at least at that moment in time, were so centered and accepting of who they were that they were able to focus all of their energy outward. The most memorable for me was Peter, who I met in a training program. Although we hardly spoke, I watched as people were drawn to him. Not because he positioned himself as a guru, or because he told stories of his successes, but I believe because he made every person in that room feel seen and heard. He was curious, interested, and generous, focused on what was happening in the moment and how he could learn and bring others along with him. His quiet confidence over those few days became an aspirational leadership (and life) goal for me. Peter was not in a high stress, high stakes position like Dalia. It is significantly more challenging to hold onto that outward focus when you are stressed and exhausted. Practicing when things are a bit calmer can make a big difference, and help this posture to become a pattern for you. The difference between energy focused outward, and the potentially deafening impacts of inward focused energy is easy to see when you look for it, but moving from one to the other is challenging, to say the least.

You cannot wish yourself confident

So how to get started? There are a few things that you can do to move towards the virtuous circle of looking outward and building your confidence:

Just notice

When you have a strong emotional reaction to something, notice where in your body you are feeling it first. This is typically a cue, and we can use this cue to help us slow down a bit and listen more carefully to our internal dialogue. If you are telling yourself a story which is mostly filled with self-criticism or the judgement of others, take note. Increasing your awareness of how often this is happening, and any patterns that particularly trigger these types of reactions, are the most important steps in empowering you to choose a different strategy, and to move from reacting to acting purposefully in these situations.

Julien tended to hear all critiques as an attack. He quickly noticed that when he heard negative feedback, his neck muscles tightened. When he felt this cue, he learned to pause, and not react. This gave him time to remind himself of other ways of acting that would help him to achieve his objectives and to learn.

Listen with curiosity

This may sound easy, but it is not, especially when tired, stressed or feeling insecure. It means listening to understand versus listening to answer. For those of you who meditate, you know that when you notice a thought, you try to let it go and come back to your focus for the meditation. Try using those skills when listening. When you notice you are thinking of your counter arguments instead of listening and being curious — let it go and come back to focusing completely on the other person. Like meditation, this can definitely improve with practice.

Natasha was on the line for getting her project implemented, and her colleague was getting in the way. Natasha struggled, however, to describe to me what his objections were, what were the impacts on him, what part of her solution did she think he already agreed to, etc. When she next met with her colleague, she put aside her stress (temporarily) and truly focused on listening. She continually asked him to say more, asked if there was anything else he was concerned about, and did not answer any of his points until he was done. With Natasha’s expanded understanding, they were then able to clear up misconceptions and find new strategies to move the project forward.

Pick someone else

As a small test, choose someone else in your next meeting and do what you can to help that person succeed and ‘look good’. This forces your focus outside of yourself and can begin a chain reaction. It requires you to see more of what is going on in the room, listen to others from that person’s perspective, and requires you to flex your empathy and compassion, which in turn can give you confidence.

Jorge had a reputation for being a bit hot-headed in meetings. To learn to shift his focus, he picked the newest member of the Leadership Team, Sam. He helped Sam get the floor when he wanted to speak and he looked for opportunities to support Sam’s arguments. He didn’t go overboard, but after doing this in a few meetings, his focus had begun to subtly shift. He realised afterwards that he had picked up much more about the others in the room, deepened his understanding of the system, the issues and the politics, and was (very) slowly able to take more distance from the comments made about issues concerning him. He felt more balanced, and his confidence increased. Having Sam as a strong ally has been an added benefit.

More than one Superpower

I cannot count the number of times clients have said, “but she is smarter than me, knows more than me, is more senior/experienced than me…” Other people’s competence can create a gut reaction of stabbing insecurity. Remind yourself that life does not tend to be a zero-sum game. How can you leverage their strengths to learn more and do better? Remind yourself as well that there are a million different ways to be ‘smart’ and it is quite rare that someone has the monopoly on all of them.

Everyone has their own superpower. Knowing your strengths and how to leverage them widely, and how to build on everyone else’s strengths, is the key to strong leadership.

Taylor is a Partner in a consulting firm. To get to that position, Taylor felt that he always had to know more than everyone else in the room. With his success came a breadth of responsibilities that he had not managed before, and now, many of the people in his team knew a lot more than he did about their area of expertise. He struggled to see how he could coach and lead a team of people who knew more than he did. His lack of confidence in this situation blocked him from seeing the obvious. When asked what he learned most from the Partners who came before him, there was, of course, some subject matter learning, but the Partners who had helped him the most, he realised, were the ones that took the time to listen, to give feedback, to push him to do more than he thought he could. Taylor began to see that he had more than one ‘superpower’ and that coaching and developing people was something he loved to do.

Turn your threat scanner outside

Many of my clients who have found themselves in this paradox have amazing radar. They tend to notice subtle signals in the environment that many others miss. The danger comes when everything this radar is picking up is interpreted in a way that confirms a negative story. Instead, turn this radar outside. Tell yourself several stories about what might be going on, and make sure that a few of these versions do not have you in the leading role. Try to step off what Chris Argyris called The Ladder of Inferenceexplained in the following illustration:

Akari had been climbing the ladder quickly taking on increasing responsibility, but also climbing the Ladder of Inference. In one coaching session she told me that she was sure her boss did not value her and she was feeling disengaged. He never asked for her opinion in team meetings, but often asked others. (She ‘selected data from observable data’: the first few rungs of Argyris’ ladder). The next rung of the ladder is to add meaning to that data, and Akari understood his behavior to mean that he was uninterested in her opinion. She continued climbing by adding her own assumptions: her boss does not value her and feels she is in over her head. And finally, reaching the top of Argyris’ ladder, she acts on these assumptions, in this case, by disengaging from her work. Challenged to find a different version of this story assuming that her boss did value her, she thought that her boss may have been concerned about members of the team who had not been promoted. He may have been helping them to shine and giving them confidence. When she analysed the different versions of the story, she quickly saw that the second version was more likely.


Start with a low-risk experiment. If you are feeling especially vulnerable, you may want to start the test with your best friend or your children, where the risks are lowest. Consciously turn your focus outward. When you notice any thoughts about yourself, just let them go and come back to focusing on the people and the situation. Notice if anything has changed for you, for them, or in the relationship. How can you make this experiment a little bigger? Take what seems to be working for you and keep practising — it eventually gets quite a bit easier!

Dwayne had an unhelpful pattern of taking any form of feedback too personally and he was losing confidence. Dwayne was feeling so vulnerable, that he decided to practise first with his ten-year old son. Whenever his son would get angry at him, Dwayne would immediately feel that pit in his stomach that he had failed again. He took that pit as a cue to turn his focus outward, and concentrate on what was happening with his son. He put his energy on seeing things from his son’s perspective, and supporting him. He not only became more helpful to his son, but began feeling more competent as a father. Noticing this pattern, he started doing the same thing with a few colleagues at work, and slowly built a virtuous circle to gain back his feelings of competence and confidence.

One step at a time

It is often my most ‘emotionally intelligent’ coachees who can have too much inward focus. They seem to deeply understand the importance of connecting with people, building high trust relationships and strong teams. Their desire to succeed in this side of leadership seems to have the potential of pushing them where they least want to go — overly focused on what is going on for them, and therefore less available for their teams.

By being aware of this trap, and practising some of the strategies above, leaders have been able to build new habits and lead with a quiet, outward focused, leadership.

People with this quiet confidence have no need to prove their worth but they do build credibility and speak often of the successes of their team. They do not believe themselves to be ‘the best’, but rather fully accept who, and where, they are in their lives, while striving to learn and improve. Without any need to prove anything to others, they are able to shift their focus outward, helping people to feel heard, understanding what is happening in the wider system, and successfully driving change. It is a deeply challenging goal, but if the direction is clear, any small steps are big wins.

*all examples are with the approval of the client and have been changed to ensure anonymity. Many examples are composites of more than one case.


Julie Jessop is an Aziz executive coach and has been developing leaders for over 30 years.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED Talk

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About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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