Inspirational leaders – Nicola Reindorp – the super power of doubt

At Grace Blue we make it our business to constantly learn and understand more about what makes a great leader. As part of our series of leadership talks, we welcomed Nicola Reindorp, incoming CEO of Crisis Action, an award-winning organisation building global coalitions to protect people from war. Nicola has driven global campaigns that have saved thousands of lives. She has worked for Oxfam, for the UN and has advised global leaders. Early in her life she found a certainty of purpose: a desire to prevent mass atrocities and to protect people from war. But alongside her certainty of purpose, she has also spent much of her life battling with her demons of doubt – doubt that can hinder action, cause pain, waste mental energy and stop people stepping up to lead. A desire to halt this waste spurred Nicola to kick off a project exploring doubt. She wanted to test the idea that doubt can be harnessed to become a positive force and an important ingredient for successful leadership.

Nicola very honestly shared her experience of battling doubt. Throughout Nicola’s career she has become more adept at dealing with her self-doubt and uncertainty. However, she came to question whether she had been seeing doubt all wrong. For more than two decades she had viewed doubt as a deficiency to be managed or banished. In leaders she had seen doubt as the fatal flaw that should be hidden away. But then she realised that perhaps doubt was not a failing but a source of power. This awakening led her to explore this theory, interviewing many leaders from all walks of life including politics and business.

She started to learn that in fact the best leaders were not necessarily the ones who claimed to have all the answers but those who said they didn’t.

She learnt that doubt often encourages people to listen more carefully, to acutely explore the heart of the issue. She observed that those who ask questions make better decisions.

This set Nicola on a crusade to understand the real power of doubt. From the many leaders she spoke to she began to understand that doubt can be a productive form of questioning and discovery. That it can lie at the heart of self-awareness and humility. That it can spur curiosity and learning and result in innovation. What’s more it can generate an openness to feedback. It can help people understand other people’s experiences and perspectives and can be a driver for greater inclusion and diversity within teams.

She also urged us to consider the perils of over confidence. How we must not mistake charisma and confidence with competence, when the two can be very separate. An absence of doubt can lead to missed innovations and perhaps flawed decision-making.

Of course, we all seek certainty. We need leaders who can make decisions, who can have a clear sense of vision and purpose, leaders who can manifest a degree of certainty and level of conviction that inspires others to ditch their doubts and follow. But the idea of superhero leaders that are always certain and never doubt is a myth – and those that assert all they know are likely to be the leaders we should trust least.

Nicola suggests we should rebrand doubt and welcome it as route to insight, innovation, and inclusion. She argues we should embrace what the most effective leaders know: how to ditch destructive doubt and harness it powerfully.

Nicola talked us through how effective leaders do this and shared a toolkit to harness productive doubt and to deal with destructive doubt, reframe negative thoughts and focus on extracting insight to inform action and further learning.  Perhaps if we can do this it will change who leads and provide opportunities for more women and people of colour. Perhaps we will encourage a generation of leadership that is more curious, self-aware, humble, innovative, and inclusive. This is so important at a time when we are all striving for equality, perhaps it can prompt us to interrogate our biases.

2020 has been a year when we have all had to dig deep, change course, and innovate, A year when we have had to admit we do not always know what to do. Reconsidering doubt as a superpower is liberating.

Thank you Nicola.