All Articles Leadership Communication Success as a leader demands strong self-talk

Success as a leader demands strong self-talk

When we get in our own heads, we often go negative, even if we are outwardly positive. The key is to recognize this tendency and actively reset yourself. Learn how.

6 min read


Success as a leader demands strong self-talk

SmartBrief illustration

I’ve written several times about the idea of the inner game of leading. It’s where success in this challenging role is won or lost.

From an article a few years ago, I wrote:

“Too often in the world of leadership development and coaching, we preoccupy on the visible manifestation of leadership—the gestures, actions, styles, and habits—when the real work of leadership is forged in our minds, invisible to all but the lone individual waging war against self-doubt or other insidious dark forces.”

Every person who has held this role knows about the pitched battle that rages in their minds as they strive to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty with and through others. They know their effectiveness as a leader is won in that space between their ears via the narrative that plays in their minds constantly. 

Our powerful self-talk track 

Invest time researching the research on what we know about our inner thoughts, and it feels safe to generalize two key points:

We have a lot of unique thoughts every day, with the operative word being “unique.” One study suggests this number is around 6,000. Others go much higher.

A lot of our thoughts are negative. One study suggests the ratio of negative to positive thoughts is in the area of 80:20. That’s 80 on the negative side and 20 to the positive.

If that number is even in the zip code of accurate, the biggest adversary we face in our lives is staring back at us in the mirror.

What does your self-talk track say about you?

Do your research and monitor your self-talk track over a few days. Keep a journal log. How much of the narrative in your mind is negative versus positive? How does this feel? Does it support your success? 

I perceive myself as a positive person, and when I did this, my negative thoughts were still the majority. 

What’s your self-talk track saying about you? 

Consider this quote from Ethan Kross via his excellent book “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It“:

“Much of our life is the mind. So, what happens we slip away?

We talk to ourselves.

And we listen to what we say.”

Leaders aren’t immune from negative self-talk

While you might imagine those in leadership roles are imbued with a robust positive talk track, many individuals struggle with just the opposite. The incredible number of pressures in our world, plus a strong sense of responsibility for people around these individuals, combine to create too much negative chatter in their minds. I hear some variation of these comments regularly in coaching sessions:

  • I don’t know the right direction, and I’m afraid I’ll pick the wrong one.
  • I’m as lost as everyone else; I can’t show it.
  • What if they figure out I’m not up to this job?
  • I can’t sleep. I’m too busy worrying.
  • I don’t know why they picked me for this job. I don’t feel up to it.

News flash: Leaders are humans and struggle with all of the same worries and doubts as the rest of us. However, effective leaders learn to funnel the doubts and fears into something more constructive. They use a variation of the Active Reset process outlined below.

Derail your negative self-talk train with an Active Reset

Seizing control of your self-talk track and learning to stop negative thoughts before they gain too much momentum takes discipline and repetition. I employ an Active Reset approach when the negative thought train starts rolling. (Note: this is my variation of the great guidance provided by many with Dr. in their title.) 

1. Stop and acknowledge: “Stop it! This is negative thinking.”

2. Question: “Why am I thinking this way. What evidence do I have that supports the negative?”

3. Reframe: “How can I reposition this issue and look for the opportunity?”

4. Act: “Here’s what I’ll do.”

And the step that grooves this into our brain and makes this a repeatable behavior:

5. Reflect: “What did I learn from turning my negative thought into a positive opportunity?” Use your professional journal

In working with clients for this process, the most challenging parts have been recognizing the negative thought and then sticking with the reflection process. Those who work diligently for a few weeks report this shift from negative to positive to become reflex-like in their daily activities. 

A case study in active reset

When I first chatted with Jeff (name changed/case shared with permission), a newly minted vice president, he was fresh out of a board meeting where he perceived he had bumbled through his presentation. The CEO’s feedback — “That didn’t go so well” — didn’t help Jeff’s mood. 

When Jeff reached out to me, I asked him what he was thinking about that experience. His response was telling: “I realized I wasn’t ready for this job or for those types of situations. I’m not sure I’m in the right role. I think they promoted the wrong person.” 

I taught him the Active Reset process outlined above, and we practiced applying it to his negative thoughts about presenting to the board.

Jeff developed this reframe: “Board presentations are a great opportunity to show how much I care about our business and customers. Yes, they’re pressure-packed, but with additional preparation and practice, I can help our firm by succeeding in those moments.” 

As the time for the next board presentation grew near, Jeff not only reiterated the positive frame but also practiced his presentation, including the Q&A session. His presentation was a success.

Armed with a successful outcome, we worked together to help him incorporate the Active Reset process in real time. Jeff was recently promoted to senior vice-president, and he credits his comfort and growing confidence in shifting the negatives to opportunities.

Positive self-talk or positive self-trickery?

Occasionally, someone will point out the process is not much more than playing a trick on our brain. I prefer to call it a “hack,” and I’m good with anything we can do to get that organ working for us and not against us. Call it what you will; if it works for you, embrace it.

The bottom line for now

Fear, self-doubt and the tendency to catastrophize situations are your adversaries as a leader. The essence of life is overcoming challenges. Instead of allowing your negative emotions to rule you, engage in a little self-trickery and reset and reframe the negatives to positives. That’s one great reason to shift your thinking toward the positive: it improves your odds of success.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipbusiness transformation and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.