5 Fears of Mid-Level Leaders — Fear of Incompetence

Nov 8, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

Pacific Castaway Buoy by Jake Brewer

“I just got promoted, and I was really excited about the opportunity. But things just aren’t working out as well as I thought they would. It seems like every time I want my team to go one direction, they all end up going the other way. I’m trying really hard, but I’m not sure I can do this. Everything I thought I understood and knew just doesn’t seem to be working for me anymore. I’m used to being very good at what I do, but now I’m worried that maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m not really up for this.”


Can I really do this?

William’s story isn’t unique. What he shared with me during our first conversation is a common fear among people who are either stepping into their first major leadership role and/or into a complex situation that stretches the limits of their competence. For William, this was his first wake-up call to the truth that being a good leader requires more than just strong expertise and a sparkling personality.

Up to this point, William had been an effective individual contributor. As an emerging leader, this is his first big move past colleagues and peers. He is experiencing the satisfaction of being rewarded for his efforts, while at the same time discovering the challenges of leading the very people he was working alongside just days or weeks earlier. He is technically talented and has proven himself (after all, you can’t be technically mediocre and be promoted to lead other people in that area). But he is finding that a lot of his new leadership responsibilities are harder than he thought.

He lacks a well-defined “leadership style,” so he naturally does or doesn’t do certain things based on his personal preferences and what’s been modeled for him (both positive and negative) by other people in authority. When under stress, he easily and quickly reverts back to what he knows and what got him to this place in his career: his expertise.

Emerging leaders like William have not fully developed their self-awareness. They struggle with the role of intent in their decisions and actions. When they make mistakes or lead poorly, they look at their motivation and recognize that they wanted to do the right thing. But it is results and impact, not intent, that matter most to the people they lead. And so, disoriented by self-doubt, they realize that what got them where they are will not get them where they want to go.

What’s at Risk?

People facing this fear risk losing two things: their sense of competence, and their willingness to keep moving forward as a leader. When I talk with these hi-pos, it can feel like a process of reaching into that tender core of who they are to help them discover some truth about Self that they feel the need to protect.

Key Issues & Challenges

  • Handling newfound authority
  • Staying “out of the weeds”
  • Working with direct reports (some of whom are former peers)
  • Managing time effectively
  • Making decisions well
  • Coping with feelings of uncertainty.

Antidotes to the Fear of Incompetence

1. Seek honest feedback.

If you’re a leader struggling with the “Can I Do This?” fear, it’s important to get feedback early, often, and accurately. Feedback will help you become far more aware of the actual effect you have on others, and it will help you gain fresh perspectives.

Without feedback, you’re more likely to judge your own behavior based on your own intent. Others, meanwhile, scrutinize your behavior based on the effect.

Look for feedback from more people than just your immediate boss. You’ll benefit from feedback from the people you lead, peers, customers, and stakeholders or other groups with which you interact. You don’t need to wait for a 360-degree evaluation to formally come to you. Create and initiate an informal version: go out and seek feedback from every type of stakeholder, both internal and external to your company.

2. Learn to delegate.

Learning the fine art of delegation is essential. You limit your influence, your capacity to grow as a leader, and your ability to move up the ranks into greater responsibility if you don’t learn how to trust and develop others to help carry the workload.

The art of delegating is challenging; often it’s quicker and easier to just do the work yourself. It feels good. It’s familiar. And it’s very seductive; we all love the feeling of being competent. But without the skill of delegation, you run the risk of burning out quickly, particularly if you’ve moved into a leadership role and still have responsibility for or take on too much of the technical work.

If you continue to rely on your own technical experience, you’ll find yourself right back “in the weeds.”

Task-oriented people tend to have a tougher time with this than relationship-oriented people. To develop others requires slowing down in the short term to increase efficiency and speed in the longer term. Unless you take the time to assess and get other people doing their share of the workload, you’ll end up owning it all.

Leaders battling this fear may also get stuck on the thought that for something to be done right, they have to do it themselves. It’s important to work through this and develop a trust in the competence of others; otherwise, this fear will infuse the other 4 Fears.

Photo Credit: Pacific Castaway Buoy by Jake Brewer

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