When leaders express self-doubt, they do us all a favour

How two New Zealand leaders have helped others by talking about performance anxiety, self-doubt, and panic attacks

Photo by Birgit Reitz-Hofmann on Shutterstock

Here in New Zealand, two high profile people recently made public statements expressing self-doubt and anxiety. In different ways, Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Todd Muller have helped expose that leaders are not immune from self-doubt.

Dr Bloomfield, Director-General of Health, has become something of a national hero during the COVID19 pandemic.

​Since March 2020, he has fronted a 1 pm media conference most days — often with Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern. His role is to provide the public health update on case numbers, deaths, testing, and critical public health messages.

His briefings are informative and clear. His style is direct but empathetic. He acknowledges the suffering of those directly affected and the public’s sacrifices.

He never strays from delivering the tough messages and directives about restrictions on our freedom. And he handles the barrage of media questions with clear, well-informed responses.

On a few occasions, he has been caught on the back foot — having to admit a failure in the system. For example, there have been mistakes with testing and border control measures.

Any reasonable person would understand that errors and system failures are inevitable during these unprecedented times. But he has always accepted responsibility for mistakes and carefully set out the steps taken to remedy them.

In short, he has done the public service proud. His performance has been exemplary, and his leadership qualities indisputable. On a personal level, he appears incredibly humble.

Recently Dr Bloomfield revealed that he has not found it easy, and at times has been plagued by self-doubt.

In a webinar hosted by the Graeme Dingle Foundation, he talks about feeling his cortisol levels rising from 10 am every day he has to do a media stand up. At one stage that was six days a week! Even now, it is at least three times a week. And he admits he is probably not much fun to be around at this time.

“In this role — and I’m quite open about it with my staff — I have moments of great self-doubt and of anxiety, and I love the days when I don’t have a stand-up to do.”

He says that it is important to acknowledge and name the anxiety so that others can support you.

It is not surprising that he experiences self-doubt and performance anxiety. The pressure to perform is enormous. The Government has relied heavily on his advice for its COVID19 response. His reputation and the reputation of our country are both at stake.

It is one thing to experience self-doubt. But it is another to express such feelings publicly. Many leaders prefer to cultivate an air of calm and confidence. They would be reluctant to reveal what could be interpreted as “weakness”.

In my line of work — coaching people with extreme anxiety about public speaking — self-doubt is rife. And many of my clients believe that they are unusual in their feelings of doubt and inadequacy.

Dr Bloomfield’s response normalises such feelings and proves we can still do our jobs well. Self-doubt is part of the human condition. In my view, Dr Bloomfield has taken the concept of servant leadership to a new level by admitting self-doubt.

The second example is a little more complicated.

In May 2020, Todd Muller became the leader of the National Party after he mounted and won a leadership challenge against the increasingly unpopular Simon Bridges.

We have an election in New Zealand this year, and the National Party was polling badly under Bridges. Muller was under tremendous pressure to turn things around. Instead, he faced a series of scandals and mishaps.

After 53 days he shocked the nation by announcing his resignation. He cited mental health reasons.

“The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective,” he said.

Reactions were mixed. Most people applauded Muller’s honesty, but I wasn’t so sure. I felt a little uncomfortable that he was using the mental health label to describe his inability to handle the pressure of a tough job — a job that he had determinedly taken from someone else.

There are certainly some differences between Todd Muller and Dr Bloomfield’s public statements. For a start, Dr Bloomfield is speaking from a position of strength, and Todd Muller was explaining a “failure”.

Dr Bloomfield labelled it as self-doubt. Todd Muller implied self-doubt but cited health issues. Yes, his symptoms were more severe and included panic attacks. But the realisation he was not the right person for the job caused the panic attacks. Is that self-doubt or a mental health issue? Or a mental issue brought on by self-doubt? And does it matter?

Dr Bloomfield is a public servant and has nothing to gain professionally from expressing self-doubt. Todd Muller is a politician with motives. To retain constituent support (he is still a Member of Parliament) he had to produce an explanation. And by calling it a mental health issue, perhaps he was taking advantage of the mental health label.

Dr Bloomfield talks about being open with his staff. Muller talked about being open with his family, but his closest advisors say they were unaware.

This was July 2020. Two months later, during Mental Health Awareness week, Muller elaborated on his reasons in a Facebook post. He describes experiencing panic attacks, night sweats, insomnia, tightening pressure in his head, and severe anxiety.

He talks about how these feelings were new to him. In the past, he faced high-pressure situations in the corporate world but had never had a panic attack.

“I had never experienced panic attacks before. When I had heard of people talking about them, or even sharing their experience previously, I thought people simply just had to try harder, or get a grip, or focus on something else more positive.”

I would have preferred to see Todd Muller explicit about his realisation that he was not up to the job. He seemed confident that he was the right person when he staged the challenge. But quickly discovered that the pressures of the role were beyond anything he experienced the past — his inability to cope triggered panic attacks, which further impacted on his performance.

But I applaud the way he came forward in Mental Health Awareness week to elaborate. This would have required him to “re-live” what must still be a raw, painful and embarrassing experience. I especially applaud the acknowledgement that he was dismissive of such anxiety in the past.

Despite the differences, I believe both men have spoken publicly to benefit others.

They have helped us understand that tremendous pressure can induce feelings of inadequacy.

Dr Bloomfield has provided inspiration and reassurance to others who sometimes experience self-doubt.

Todd Muller’s experience is a reminder that self-doubt can become overwhelming. And sometimes we have to take a step back. While his story did not have a fairy tale ending, that also is life.

Originally published at https://www.fear-less.co.nz.

Public speaking coach specializing in helping people with public speaking anxiety. “All great speakers were bad speakers at first.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store