The inner gaze

Self-knowledge is crucial, particularly in a tough economy.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(Fortune Small Business) – We’ve all been there: a crisis erupts in your business, and because you’re the boss, everyone turns to you for a solution. The little voice in your head wails, “Don’t look at me! I have no idea!” To make matters worse, you think the whole world can see your inner lack of confidence.

So how do you fix it? Meet Andrew S., 49, president of a New York City firm that manages social service organizations (I’ve altered certain details to conceal his identity). Guided by a strong sense of civic responsibility and the desire to help others, Andrew seems ideally suited to his work. And the business has performed well during his 15 years at the helm.

Interestingly, Andrew hired me as an executive coach after receiving an extremely positive annual review from his board. “Everyone thinks I’m doing great – my staff, my board, the agencies that hire my company, people I do fund-raising with,” he told me. “But I don’t agree. I know I’m underperforming as a leader, and I feel like a fraud.”

Like most entrepreneurs these days, Andrew is anxious about the economy. “My client agencies are battered by dwindling funding, causing them to scale back their use of my company,” he said. “Of course, this comes just as their clients need them more than ever.”

Andrew identifies deeply with the people he serves; he feels their pain, and he’s experiencing some guilt about being successful when so many others are failing. But would he be just as stressed in a boom economy?

I think the answer is yes. Andrew’s issues transcend the business cycle. Beneath his smart, generous, unflappable exterior lurks massive insecurity. In Andrew’s imagination everyone around him thinks (or will soon discover) that he’s really worthless, conniving and self-involved. “I can’t believe I’m not transparent,” he told me with obvious discomfort.

The technical term for this is projection. Andrew attributes his negative self-image to the people around him. He assumes that his colleagues and clients are perpetually on the verge of attacking him, when in reality he’s attacking himself. As a result, it hardly matters whether or not Andrew faces a real, objective threat. The entire emotional game is taking place inside his head.

There’s no Pentium undo button for this one. Andrew’s template for the fraudulent leader comes from his father. Andrew describes him as respected and authoritative in the outside world but passive, unpredictable and rageful at home. Andrew’s mother was depressed and narcissistic, he says; she leaned on him for emotional support without ever praising his efforts. At school he struggled socially but managed to conceal his anger and timidity behind a mask of stoic resolve.

In short, Andrew’s history conditioned him to associate authority with duplicity. That’s why he feels like a false leader today. But by acknowledging and understanding what’s going on in his head, he can learn how to handle his emotions so that he can stay on point in his job.

Step One: Andrew needs to give himself credit for his advantages. His past may have been unhappy, and it may have made it difficult for him to distinguish real threats from imaginary ones. But his early relationships also prepared him to succeed in his chosen career. Having lived through an emotional battering, he knows how to lead a business dedicated to helping others survive difficult times.

Step Two: Andrew must understand that his feelings are normal and acceptable. Everyone feels fraudulent sometimes; that’s part of being human.

Step Three: Dialogue. Andrew has been trapped inside himself. He grew up with nobody listening to him and has made helping others his profession. His corrosive projections are generated partly, I think, by the fact that he wants the people in his life to know him better. It helps to air out these projections with me, rather than at work.

Self-examination is hard work. It’s also worth the investment, for both you and your business. No company can thrive under misaligned leadership. In a tough economy, it’s especially important for entrepreneurs to focus on the business issue that matters most — themselves.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City and a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm.