Manage Your Self-Talk = Manage Your Leadership Presence!

Business man pointing the text: Self-AwarenessBy Judy Wade, Executive Coach

In a recent coaching engagement with a high potential leader in a large company, I was surprised to uncover a secret that no one would have expected of this outwardly confident man.  In many meetings with higher ups, he would repeatedly think to himself: “I don’t belong here.”  This was totally illogical given how successful and how respected I knew him to be, but many of us also talk to ourselves in similar ways.  Here’s the quick version of how I worked with this leader to change his thinking and his behavior – and what YOU can do to avoid the same trap.


As a coach, I ask questions to help people gain self-awareness, find their own best solutions, and make better behavioral choices.  I asked this leader – who I’ll call “Sam” – how his thinking shaped his behavior and Sam said he was often totally quiet in meetings with superiors, felt stiff and nervous, and used tentative language – like “maybe” or “might” – when speaking up.  Then I asked Sam how he thinks others in the room perceive him as a result of holding back like that.  Sam replied, “Not good, I know. They probably wonder what I’m even doing in the meeting. Sometimes my boss’s boss asks me what I think and then I speak up. I bet I look weak and intimidated.”  We agreed this wasn’t the outcome he wanted, for sure, and he could be damaging his reputation quickly.

Coaches help leaders make and sustain positive change – awareness is not enough, but it is a first step.  So, I challenged Sam to think of small changes he could commit to for the very next meeting with these superiors that was a realistic step towards countering that negative self-talk.  Like, could he set a goal to at least speak up once or twice in the next meeting without being asked?  And, when he catches himself thinking he doesn’t belong, what positive thought could he replace that with?  Sam chose and committed to very simple goals for a meeting that was scheduled a few days away.

In our next coaching session, Sam was happy to report that he tried the new thought he chose (“I do have value to add here.”) and behavior (talk twice without having to be asked) and met with positive reaction.  Sam said he even felt the difference in his body tension and voice and, as a result, was much more engaged in that meeting.  Sam felt like this change in his thinking and his behavior could significantly impact his life in many ways, not just at work.  Without realizing it, Sam had been limiting himself through negative and illogical self-talk for far too long.  Coachee results like this – small behavior changes leading to life-changing growth – are what coaches dream of helping leaders make happen for themselves!

Sam is certainly not unique… We all have times when we feel “lesser than”: less smart, less experienced, less successful, younger or older than, different race/gender than, etc.  The trick is to catch our thinking habits and eliminate those that hold us back.  Our thinking drives our conclusions, assumptions and behavior.  Our body simply believes whatever our brain tells it and acts accordingly!  If you are doubting yourself inside your head, your body language on the outside will look as if you lack confidence, are submissive, anxious, etc.  For example, you’ll probably not make good eye contact, might start sweating, will make small nervous gestures, or literally will make yourself “small” on the outside with arms and legs tightly held.

Try this when next preparing for an important meeting, difficult conversation, or a job interview:

  • Think through what impression you want to make.
  • Anticipate what you’d be thinking in the moment that could limit you, creating a behavior counter to your purpose.
  • Set a realistic behavioral goal (just one small thing you can do, say, think) to catch yourself and choose a more powerful, positive thought and behavior.
  • After the event, reflect on what you tried, what worked or didn’t, and set a new small goal for the next similar event.  Repeat as needed; change takes focus and repeated practice.

Want to better manage your leadership presence?  Break the habit of negative self-talk.  You CAN do it – one small step at a time!


Judy Wade has thirty years of leadership development experience in a variety of business settings and has coached leaders at all levels for 11 years. She most recently worked at Anthem, Inc., a Fortune 38 company, where over a period of 14 years she held a variety of roles in Human Resources: managing executive development, leading enterprise-wide succession planning and directly supporting C-suite talent management work, providing individualized support and coaching to senior executives, building an internal coach program and sourcing external executive coaches. Judy completed her Bachelor’s degree in Management at Indiana Wesleyan University and her Master’s degree in Adult Learning and Organization Development at Indiana University. She is an International Coach Federation (ICF) accredited ACC, Associate Certified Coach, having completed her training through advanced classes at the College of Executive Coaching.

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