Rafael Nadal has won 19 major tennis tournaments. His accomplishments have established him as one of the greatest players of all time. He is also a committed communitarian, focusing his time and resources to investing in his hometown, Manacor, on the island of Mallorca.
But you know what? Before significant matches, he experiences doubt. Reporter Jon Wertheim, who has covered Nadal for 15 years, interviewed Nadal for CBS’s 60 Minutes. “You once said to me [Wertheim], ‘If I don’t feel doubt, I’m gonna be in trouble. Doubt is very important to my success.’”
Nadal agreed, “If you don’t have doubt, it probably means that you’re being arrogant.” Wertheim countered, “Most athletes might think the exact opposite, that doubts are bad. You’re saying doubts are almost a power, a strength.” Nadal says doubt is “good for me, because then I feel alert. Because tennis is a sport where things can change very quickly. That’s the great beauty of our sport.”
For Nadal, doubt is his way of connecting to his craft. What he experiences is like that of an entertainer who feels butterflies before going on stage. It is a way of admitting your vulnerability as well as your commitment to your craft.
Such self-awareness makes Nadal a good study for leaders. First and foremost, he is highly self-aware. As such, Nadal is comfortable facing demons that may plague mortals but do not cripple him. He is not immune to doubt and defeat, but like most successful athletes, he can reframe the negative in ways that enable him to push forward.
Adopting Nadal’s approach here is what leaders can do to strengthen their inner selves.
Take stock of who you are. Leaders are pushed and pulled in many different directions. Taking time to reflect on what they are doing now and what they have done is essential. More important, it is necessary to realize what is not going well, and what you can do better.
Confront your inner dragons. Doubt, as it is for Nadal, prompts us to look in the mirror and acknowledge our imperfections. The ability to consider what is holding you back requires an analytic focus. It also requires guts. Too often, leaders are assured by underlings that all is well when, in reality, the opposite is true. A gutsy leader will probe himself to learn the truth.
Seek out good counsel. Living within our mindset is a recipe for stasis. Effective leaders always have one, two, or more “advisors” to whom they can turn for honest appraisals. Such people may be former colleagues, including a former boss or senior folks unafraid to speak truth to power.
Keeping these ideas in mind will enable a leader to put him or herself into the context of where they are now and where they want to go next. Knowing one’s self is essential to leading others for two reasons. One, it gives you the inner strength to exhibit confidence others need to believe in what you can do. Two, you demonstrate a sense of vulnerability that accents your humanity.
None of us is perfect. A person who acts as if he is perfect demonstrates the inability to recognize what he needs to improve. That only turns people off. “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world,” wrote philosopher Bertrand Russell, “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Knowing yourself is essential to lead others effectively, doubts and all.