Read time: 6 mins      Added: 26/02/2024

Laurence Davies, a Therapeutic Coach who supported business leaders as part of the Stronger Mind, Stronger Business initiative, explores the role of self-esteem in business leadership.

Self-esteem and leadership

The role of self-esteem (how we value and perceive ourselves) is often overlooked or misunderstood in relation to business leadership. Often, modern leadership advice focuses on how we are perceived by and influence others – how we present ourselves to the world. The idea that you can “fake it ‘til you make it,” master public speaking, acquire negotiation skills, or “sell yourself” all feed into this. 

Whilst all these skills are certainly important, focusing on your relationship with yourself, rather than the persona you project to the world, could be the key to building mental resilience and becoming the leader you aspire to be. Perhaps it’s time to start looking inward.

Impact of low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can affect us in many ways as leaders. It can reduce confidence, resilience, and motivation, having a knock-on effect on the clarity of our thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. This can lead to poor decision-making, and can make it harder to set goals, inspire others, communicate effectively, and build good relationships – all important traits of a good leader. All of this can also, in turn, increase the likelihood of experiencing stress and anxiety as a result. 

However, self-esteem can be positively changed. The first step is to identify the pitfalls and beliefs that may be holding you back. 

Pitfalls and limiting beliefs

Through years of coaching many business leaders, I have encountered a number of recurring themes and beliefs that can impact self-esteem. Some of the most common of these are as follows:

  1. Self-esteem doesn’t matter, it’s all about productivity and the bottom line. This idea remains prevalent. The bottom line of a business is fundamental; however, if productivity and profit are prioritised at the expense of how people feel about themselves and their work, the business, as well as the individuals, will suffer the effects sooner or later.
  2. Self-esteem becomes tied to business success. One of the most common pitfalls is for leaders to subconsciously tie their self-esteem to the success of their business. On one level this can seem natural; if your business lands a big lucrative contract, it may seem right to feel good about yourself. Equally, if the business loses a major customer, it might seem appropriate to be down on yourself. Unfortunately, this keeps many leaders in a state of anxiety, with ups and downs in moods, and a lack of control over their minds and emotions – all externally dependent on the ups and downs of the business’s success. None of this helps to run the business or to help your staff stay happy and healthy.
  3. The answer must be to push harder. Another frequent theme is that when leaders aren’t feeling good about themselves, or things don’t seem to be going so well for the business (and sometimes even if they are), the answer must be to spend even longer cracking through the to-do list, constantly reacting to emails, banging the drum of promotion, working into the night, or fighting fires.
  4. Looking back is time wasted. Often leaders feel that there isn’t time for looking back, or that to do so is an unnecessary indulgence and the focus should instead constantly be on the next task or goal. Although looking backward excessively is not desirable for productivity, overlooking positive reflection also misses the mark in terms of supporting positive emotional balance (as well as learning lessons).
  5. The best motivation is negative. It is very common for people to be (consciously or unconsciously) stuck in the idea that the best way to motivate themselves and others is negative – cracking the whip, jumping on any mistakes, and constantly demanding more. Where this approach is overly dominant, self-esteem is likely to be impacted, alongside other detrimental effects.
  6. Self-esteem is purely internal. Company culture and communication norms are an important factor in leaders’ and their teams’ self-esteem.

Supporting positive self-esteem

If you can relate to any of the themes listed above, remember that self-esteem can be positively changed. There are plenty of actions you can take as a leader to build self-esteem which can benefit both you and your business. Some of these are as follows:

  1. Take time to reflect on positives, achievements, and lessons learned. Celebrate successes, but also celebrate good work, regardless of the outcome. Try making and regularly adding to an achievements log.
  2. Set goals and make plans to achieve them. It can be useful to break larger tasks down and ensure that the goals we are setting are realistic and achievable.
  3. Insist on time to reflect. Firefighting may be inevitable from time to time, but if it becomes anything close to the norm, you need to find a way to get out of the cycle. It is essential to carve space to reflect on your normal routines. You can start with a small amount of time and build it up.
  4. Seek out support. If you recognise that you are struggling with your self-esteem, don’t feel you have to fight this battle alone. Support can come from colleagues, peers, family, friends, or professionals. Sometimes people hold on to a belief that asking for help is a weakness, which is not true.
  5. Create and foster a culture of appreciation. Regularly appreciate your team and ask them to do the same for their colleagues (you included). You could build this into meetings or create a physical or virtual space for this (e.g., a sticky note appreciation wall space in the office).
  6. Commit to balance in your life outside your work. Take holidays and ensure that you have quality time with family and friends. Have unplugged time and take time for hobbies or interests.
  7. Invest in your health and wellbeing. Make sure you exercise, consider what you eat, look at your use of alcohol/caffeine, etc. and sleep well. However, if you are already doing this, take care to ensure that a focus on your physical health doesn’t slip into an obsession that can get in the way of your authentic wellbeing.

If your business is doing well, take the time to notice what a huge achievement that is, even if you want to take it further. If things aren’t going so well, remember that just to maintain a business, let alone have any measure of success, is no mean feat. However well you and your business are doing, also bear in mind the value of the experience, knowledge, and skills you have built for yourself, which will equip you better for whatever your future holds.

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