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The Cost of Second-Guessing Yourself as a Leader

Updated: Sep 15

5 Strategies to Make Decisions with Confidence



"Dogs can smell fear."

We had many dogs growing up. I don't know why I remember this statement from my mother, but I do, "Dogs can smell fear." Even as a little girl, I understood that to mean, that 'if you can tame fear, then you will control how the dogs behave around you'.

I'm guessing I was skittish around the dogs, and saying that was my Mum's way of empowering me to compose myself.

Well, it turns out people can smell fear too, and all the other subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of it, like when you second-guess yourself.



According to Merriam Webster, there are two main definitions of second-guessing, the first is "to seek to anticipate or predict", and the second is, "to criticize or question actions or decisions (of someone)."

As a leader, you have probably done both;

1. you have sought to foresee what is to come in order to prepare for, and or influence its outcome; and,

2. you have criticized or questioned others' actions and decisions "often after the results of those actions or decisions are known."

It is after all your job to have the foresight to anticipate what is to come, and hindsight to analyze what could have been done differently.

What is not your job as a leader, is to second-guess yourself, that is, "to criticize or question your actions and decisions" once you make a decision.



You might think that second-guessing yourself is being wise, exercising caution, considering all angles, and backtracking to see if there is anything or anyone you left out, but all that second-guessing signals to yourself, and to others, is that you don't trust yourself to make a sound judgment.

And if you, the leader don't trust yourself, why should anyone else trust you?


"Stop second-guessing yourself. Make a decision and gracefully walk away trusting, you have made the right one."


- Dau Voire


"Come on, Modesta! Wouldn't this make me seem arrogant? Like I pretend to know all and be infallible? That's not the message I want to send out." Nor should you. Not second-guessing yourself doesn't mean that you think you are the Omniscient God. Rather it is saying, 'I have assessed the situation and made the best decision I could with the facts and counsel at my disposal, and my competence as a leader to steer my people and organization forward. And I can live with that.' Should new insights come to light in the future that compel a review of a past decision, you can review them then. But for now, make a decision and move on!



"Easier said than done Modesta! You are not at the other end of the gun barrel."

I may not know the high-stakes environment in which you make decisions daily, but I do know that "hounds smell blood", and the worst thing you can do under pressure when everyone else is looking up to you for leadership, is to let go of the reins and hold your head in despair.

Here are five strategies to make decisions with confidence:

1. Own Your Leadership

Settle within yourself that you are the leader and you have what it takes to lead. Adopt the mindset that you come with subject matter and industry knowledge, leadership and management skills, situational experience, and honed attitude to deal with the situation at hand.

Being the leader doesn't mean you have and know everything. Being the leader means you can always get the resources you need to make sound decisions that instill confidence and trust.

You are the leader. Own that.

2. Do Your Research

Find out what you can with the resources at your disposal, about the situation you have to make a decision over.

Doing your research includes obtaining objective facts, and subjective advice from others. This elevates your perspective, and instills confidence in yourself and in others, in your ability to make a good judgment call.

Don't let fear keep you paralyzed, in endless efforts to cover all angles - this is procrastination, and it can cost you the opportunity to lead through this critical moment.

Do your research, then make the decision. When new information comes to light in the future, make a better decision then.


“Move forward with no second-guessing, no guilt trips, no hesitation, your purpose is to recreate yourself a new in each moment. ”

-Neale Donald Walsch


3. Respect the Process

Every farmer respects the law of the land. They respect the process; appreciating that as a farmer, they play a significant role in ensuring a bumper crop, but there are other factors at play that also influence the final outcome.

Once you make a decision, allow it to take its course. As nervous as it may make you, unless you foresee a grave outcome, engage in the process, and see what result you get in the end.

This tells your mind that you are capable of making sound decisions. Your opinion of yourself, by the way, is the strongest opinion you listen to.

Making a decision and sticking to it to the end, therefore, is going to further increase your confidence, trust, and ability to make even more decisions.

Standing by your decision after you have made it (and before you see the results), even if later you might review it to change a few things, will also create the environment for others to do the same without dreading the consequences.

Second-guessing yourself does the opposite; it makes others fear making decisions unless they are 100% sure they will be perfect decisions. This creates an environment of fear, and stifles creativity, and innovation, two key ingredients for growth.


4. Normalize Making Mistakes

Don't go crazy now - I am not advocating negligence and recklessness.

As a leader, as a person, you know by now that you will make mistakes. We all make mistakes on this side of heaven. Embrace that. Adopt the attitude Sally Helgesen said Marshall Goldsmith has, which is the "Oh well!" attitude.

In their book, How Women Rise, Sally Helgesen remarked on how "nonchalant" Marshall Goldsmith seemed to be over mistakes he made. She felt that had she made the same mistakes, she and others would question her as a professional, as a leader.

She remarked at how Marshall Goldsmith shrugged off mistakes he had made with an "Oh well!" And moved on to the next thing he could control.

To her, it seemed that Marshall Goldsmith did not connect his mistakes to his identity or ability as a leader. What happened in the past, happened in the past. He was now in the present, and will make the most of the current opportunity to make better decisions in the future. And that's that.

Had it been her, Sally Helgesen felt she would have ruminated over her mistakes to paralysis.

Separate your identity and ability as a leader from the decision you are about. to make so that you don't feel that a potential failure in outcome means your failure as a leader.

And take risks to make many decisions, which could mean more mistakes. The thing is, the more mistakes you can make and get over, the better you will get at making sound decisions. The converse is also true, the more you second-guess yourself and hold out on making decisions, the less practice you will get from learning what works and what doesn't.


Don't second-guess the mistakes you've made, others will do that for you. Make things as simple as possible but not simpler."

- Albert Einstein


5. Embrace The Power of Next

You cannot do anything about the past. Torturing yourself with woulda, coulda, shoulda will only make you more fretful to make decisions in the future.

If you feel you struggle with second-guessing yourself to the point of paralysis, reclaim your power, confidence, and trust in yourself to make sound decisions. Then with trusted advisors, review past decisions, obtain new insights, and strategize how to make future decisions that will spur you forward.

Once you make a decision, let go of the 'what if' scenarios that used to keep you trapped in a cycle of second-guessing.

If you have to literally tell yourself, "Don't do it!" or enlist an accountability partner to tell you not to second-guess yourself, do that.

Will that guarantee all your outcomes will be perfect? Of course not, but it will give you, and others, the confidence, and trust that as a leader, you did the best that you could, with the resources that you had.

And that is all that matters.

"Wait! What if they still blame me, Modesta?"

As long as you don't blame yourself, and don't give up, you will pull through stronger. With the benefit of hindsight, you will make even better decisions in future.


"You can't second-guess your audience. You can only do what you think is right. If you do that, your audience will appreciate you."

- Lyle Lovett




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