I’ve been coaching a young, freshly-minted executive who has been selected for a high-potential development program. Recently, we’ve been exploring what it truly means to be a leader. She said to me that she believed that being a leader means always knowing what to do and to “never be in doubt”. Having been a CEO myself and having worked with many executives, I knew that the answer she provided wasn’t quite right. However, rather than challenging her directly, I asked her to validate this belief by speaking to three different executives in her company whom she trusted. Her assignment was to ask them how often they know exactly what to do and if they ever have any doubt.
Two weeks later we met again for our coaching session. She had spoken with three executives as promised and was surprised by what she had learned. Contrary to her assumptions, all three freely admitted that they don’t always know exactly what to do and often experience doubt; in fact, more often than not. Regardless of this, they functioned very well. All were well-respected as exceptional leaders in the company. And all three were perfectly comfortable with the fact that they had doubts much of the time.
When I asked how this changed her thinking, she told me about three key lessons she learned in her conversations which had shifted her beliefs.
Doubt is a natural part of the decision making process
All executives have doubt. In fact, dealing with doubt is a key function of leadership. A decision that has no risk or uncertainty should be made at a low level without getting executives involved. Leadership is not about acting without doubt. Leadership is about intelligently managing doubt so you are free to act boldly and confidently.
Doubt is a guide to seek information and ask questions
Experienced leaders use doubt as an informational divining rod. Their doubt serves as a tool they use to point to areas that need investigating and research. Years of experience and dozens of projects have given them intuition about uncertainty, risks and impact. Doubt illuminates the path to clarity.
Good decision making quantifies the risks with costs of delays
We live in a messy and imperfect world. No big decision comes without uncertainty. Opportunities have a narrow window and competitors are always looking to eat your lunch. Successful executives learn to balance the risk of acting with uncertainty against the opportunity cost of not acting. By continually assessing and quantifying these two forces, the tipping point of decisiveness can be found and action subsequently taken.
As a young executive, my client was still, understandably, acting as a manager, squeezing out every last drop of risk she could find in a situation. As a result of this behavior, she was missing out on good opportunities. To grow, she learned to become comfortable with doubt and to strike the right balance in her decision making process.
To become a leader, embrace your doubt and use it to hone your decision making. Understand that big decisions will involve some level of uncertainty. Focus your energy by being mindful of your doubts. And calibrate your scale for weighing the risk and reward of taking timely action.
Bruce Eckfeldt is an entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an expert in organizational performance and coaches startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website: http://www.eckfeldt.com.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes blog:http://www.forbes.com/sites/entrepreneursorganization/2015/06/08/if-you-want-to-be-a-leader-get-comfortable-with-doubt/