Being a leader can be a lonely road. We may have people who are looking to us for guidance, and we tend to have the feeling that we need to always be strong and put on a persona of being perfect. But it’s normal — especially as “new” leaders — to have feelings of self-doubt and just not enough confidence in ourselves (yet).
Imagine that voice or inner critic as a shadowy figure, lurking in the background but ready to pounce at any opportunity to make itself heard. Another name for this is a saboteur – anyone who seeks to prevent something from happening or moving forward. But what does it mean when we hear these voices? Are they helpful? And are they a good thing or bad?
What are Saboteurs?
Put simply, saboteurs are inner voices or thoughts about ourselves, others, or a situation that consistently and constantly point out any flaws, shortcomings, “bad” personal characteristics, or mistakes. These voices and thoughts tend to be negative and judgemental – especially when it comes to oneself. They are often deeply rooted and accompanied by our own suffering.
Saboteurs do have a birthplace and were often formed in the past; they might be things we were told and taught as a child. But also, negative, or traumatic experiences can lead to negative self-beliefs.
How Do Saboteurs affect New Leaders?
When the saboteurs emerge for new leaders, the costs can be high. Saboteurs keep you from reaching your full potential and enjoying leadership experiences. Saboteurs can lead to perfectionism, procrastination, self-doubt, and giving up. Saboteurs may keep you from making the positive impact you hope to have on others and yourself.
Instead of fully embracing, exploring, and experiencing the leadership journey and learnings, we might procrastinate, avoid mistakes, or try to hide flaws and shortcomings at all costs. This leads to perfectionism, over-preparation, excess stress, and worry.
Worst of all, it can lead to low self-confidence, anxiety, and premature abandonment of future leadership opportunities.
It keeps us from making the impact we hope to have on others and ourselves.
How Can New Leaders Challenge Their Saboteurs?
It all starts with better self-awareness
In my work with new and emerging leaders, I often guide them through a series of reflective questions to help them deepen their self-awareness. You can do the same. Consider each of the following questions and journal your responses.
- Uncover and name your saboteurs. Focus on the habits, behaviours, and self-destructive thoughts that come up as you reflect.
- How do these saboteurs work? How do you express them? How often do they show up for you?
- What is the payoff of allowing a saboteur to take over? What do they give you in the moment?
- When do your saboteurs come out to play? What triggers your saboteurs?
- What’s the cost (to you) of continuing to give in to saboteur-driven behaviour?
- What would be the benefit of replacing a saboteur with a more positive emotion or thought and how can you cultivate that feeling?
Practice catching and noticing
Start to pay attention and build the muscle of catching saboteurs as they show up. It takes time and training. Some saboteurs are very sneaky as they have been with you (and trying to protect you) for a long time.
It can be difficult, especially when the saboteur is deeply rooted. Get someone to help and support you by sharing your findings and what you are trying to accomplish.
Here are a few ways to catch your saboteur in action:
- You find yourself justifying why you should or should not do something (based on your saboteur’s voice).
- You find yourself judging yourself or others (based on the saboteur’s commentary).
- You feel fearful or angry about something that does not make sense (based on the saboteur’s stories).
- Your perspective feels limited or small (based on your saboteur’s limiting beliefs).
Challenge and test assumptions about saboteurs
You cannot get rid of your saboteurs, but you can work with them, so they are not in control of you. Saboteurs are part of our personalities, and they exist to protect us from the things that they think will cause us harm. Once the saboteur gets caught, challenge it. Ask, what is it trying to protect me from? Is it supporting my leadership goals and visions?
The first step in breaking the power of sabotage is to recognize when it is happening. That usually means noticing how we feel when we are doing something important. That is when sabotaging behaviour is most likely to occur.
Sabotage only works if you do not recognize it for what it is. The next time you find yourself looking for excuses to avoid an important task or project, take a moment to reflect on where this feeling is coming from and whether it is helping you achieve your goals.
Create a Regular Practice of addressing saboteurs
The saboteur in the back of our mind is trying to keep us from getting hurt. It’s a voice, a critic that keeps us from trying new things and going for what we want. The safety, security, and guidance it provided when we were young, now keeps us from achieving our dreams.
Steps to take down your saboteur
- Catch the saboteur. When you are feeling fearful or worried, ask yourself if this is the saboteur talking?
- Challenge the saboteur. Ask what it is trying to protect me from? Who would I be without it? Is it supporting my leadership goals and visions?
- Act despite it. If your goal truly aligns with your values, then you will do whatever it takes to make it happen!
Looking for a little more guidance? We offer one-on-one coaching with high-potential professionals, those who feel ready to take the next step in their career, and potential management candidates that allow you to safely explore, experiment, and evolve a customized suite of effective leadership skills, tools, and habits.
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.