Insecurity is former CEO Feike Sijbesma's secret to success

Being insecure as a leader is often seen as a weakness. Being overconfident, however, will not help you either since it will prevent you from being open to new insights. Feike Sijbesma’s leadership style is impressive and shows how to be insecure yet successful, writes innovation expert Simone van Neerven. ‘Keep searching, but with courage.’

Insecure and determined

“I am insecure and determined. Searching, with a lot of courage.” That is how Feike Sijbesma describes himself. When he was appointed CEO of DSM in 2007, he knew one thing for sure: ‘I want to handle my responsibilities responsibly’.

He purchased a little orange notebook so that he could jot down anything that came to him, including questions and uncertainties, options and choices, themes, goals and principles. The booklet guided him and served as a sort of moral compass. It helped him to make his ideas about DSM’s direction more practical.

He came up with a new vision for the company to combine doing good with making money, but he was not sure if it would succeed. “I was afraid that I would become DSM’s shortest-serving CEO, but I was determined this was the right thing to do.” Things turned out differently. He successfully transformed the company and by the time he left, he had been in that position the longest.

Being insecure is considered a weakness

Insecurity is not regarded as a strong character trait. Search for synonyms for insecure and you will find words like hesitant, dubious, dangerous, daring, precarious, questionable, undecided, unpredictable, unreliable, unclear, uncertain, unsteady, unsafe, precarious, problematic, risky, doubtful, changeable, shy, shaky, unstable, weak.

And that is precisely the problem. We often associate insecurity with indecisiveness and a lack of direction. But as Sijbesma also points out, insecurity and determination are not mutually exclusive. You can know damn well where you want to go, while also having doubts and remaining open to changes, new insights and other perspectives.

Overconfidence can have catastrophic consequences

Too much confidence can be fatal. We’ve all heard of businesses that failed because of far too rigid leadership that kept holding on to the chosen course. A notorious example is Blackberry, where CEO Lazardis persisted in believing in their product even in 2012 when sales had already begun to decline and the iPhone’s popularity had surpassed Blackberry.

Companies that suffered a similar fate were Blockbuster, Nokia, and Kodak. The leaders of these companies were too closed off, too determined, and no longer receptive to fresh ideas and viewpoints. They felt that rather than keeping asking questions and changing direction when new information became available, it was their responsibility to provide the correct answers.

Less prone to bias

Those who are convinced they know the answer often strive to show they’re right as quickly as possible, whereas those who are more ambivalent will seek out opposing viewpoints and pose questions. As a result, they are less prone to ‘correspondence bias‘, which is the tendency to make a judgement without understanding the context, and ‘confirmation bias‘, which is the desire to look for and choose information that confirms our existing beliefs. Making smarter decisions benefits from being a bit less certain.

We prefer to avoid discomfort

Not being sure about something also creates space. “When nothing is certain, everything is possible,” Margaret Drabble once said. Curiosity would therefore be a far better fit for uncertainty. Because when you have doubts and are uncertain, you start looking for answers. There is a catch, though. Asking questions may also reveal things you would rather not know. In organisations, a lot is grey and diffuse for a reason. If you know it, then you have to do something with it.

Furthermore, feeling uncertain about something also makes you feel you have no control over it. That feels uncomfortable and we prefer to avoid that feeling. But as the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire once wrote: “Doubt may feel uncomfortable, but the illusion that you know everything is ridiculous.”

Dare to 'flip-flop'

Change keeps coming due to a continuous flow of new insights and innovations. The speed of our lives increasingly forces us to make decisions based on conflicting or incomplete. Thus, we may not always do things right and must reverse some of our choices. And that takes a lot of courage. Would you be willing to own up to your mistakes and recognise that a different approach is required if you were the CEO of a large company?

If only we were as insecure as Sijbesma. Every now and again, flip through your orange notebook and ask yourself, “What is it all about?”. Continue searching, with a lot of courage. “I am insecure, and determined. Determined to pick up the anchors that occasionally give me some security.”

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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