The Power of Self-Doubt

In a podcast of a lecture by Tim Macartney which he gave at the London School of Economics that I recently listened to – and which I would highly recommend – he shared a valuable insight which hit home for me. I would like to share that with you here.

The Story of Mac Maharaj

The story goes that Tim, and a number of business leaders in South Africa, met with Mac Maharaj.  Mac Maharaj was the leader of the ANC’s ground forces in the bush war against the apartheid regime, a brutal and bloody time.  He played a key role in the negotiation process to South Africa’s first democratic elections, and later became the Presidential Spokesperson.

He was asked a simple question – “What would you name as the quality of a leader that you would most like to see, say in your deputy, which is at the pivotal crux of good leadership?”

He considered the question for some time and answered: “Self-doubt”

A simple, unequivocal and unexpected answer.  But one which had a lot of thought and significant implications.

He explained: “I am sick of leaders who have no questions, who think they know and are convinced that they right, the constant emphasis on confidence, on having no doubt.  I know I had a deputy who had no self-doubt and who probably killed more of our own people than the enemy”.

He went on to describe how he would prefer a person who has sleepless nights questioning what they had done, the orders they had given.  That is a person who cares – they care about the decision and its impact, not as a way of looking good or for self-advancement.

The Implications of Self-Doubt

So how does self-doubt make you a better leader?

It will only work if your self-doubt is genuine and not contrived.  Self-doubt makes you humble, it gives you humility.  It makes you think long and hard about what you decide to do.  You know that you don’t know all there is to know, and that you need to continually learn and grow through other people so that they can grow and so that you can make better decisions.

To learn and grow you need to listen more and talk less, avoid becoming opinionated and “fixed” in your attitude, perspective and mindset.  To lead well you need to feel and to sense more.  You need to be more open and remove your ego.

As a leader you understand that your power comes from who you are, not what you are. You need to be consistent to who you are and what you represent, because people witness the quality of the human being that is the leader.  It is that essence of the leader – the you – that people follow, and it is the people who the leader serves.

Don’t confuse self-doubt with a low self-esteem, it quite the opposite. To have good self-esteem you need to be self-aware – you need to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, how you affect others and how you are affected by others in turn. So welcome self-doubt and let it thrive.  Use it as a tool by which you can grow and develop, and by which you can become a better leader.  What are you going to do to harness your self-doubt and help other to harness theirs so that they can become better leaders too?

To find out more and discuss this and other ways to improve leadership effectiveness and organizational performance further contact Andrew Cooke (MGSCC), call Andrew Cooke on +61 (0)401 842 673 or

You can also find further insights and a wealth of material on business and leadership on Andrew’s other blog – Growth & Profit Solution Blog. There are also a large number of resources at his Blue Sky GPS Website, and these can be found Blue Sky GPS Resources.

About Andrew Cooke & Blue Sky GPS (Growth & Profit Solutions)



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