Leadership and Self Doubt

Pritpal S Tamber

February 4, 2017

How my confidence oscillated through our last Board meeting and what that does or doesn't mean for the work

Yesterday was the first in-person Board meeting of my company, Bridging Health & Community. The night before was a dinner. These last 36 hours were the first time the eight of us have been together since July, which was when we decided to form the company.

I was surprised by my oscillating confidence throughout our time together.

Over dinner, I felt disconnected from the group. In the morning of the Board meeting, I felt energised by them. And by the afternoon, I felt the crushing weight of responsibility of trying to make something of the faith they have shown in me. To describe it as a roller coaster would be an understatement. So, what’s happening here?

I’m clear that I’m doing the work that my life to date has pointed to. I grew up working-to-lower-middle class, worked hard enough to go to medical school, was lucky enough to learn about research and ‘evidence’ at the BMJ, experienced true, disruptive innovation through BioMed Central, and then saw the disconnect between innovation, evidence and communities through TEDMED. All in all, it makes sense for me to be doing what I am doing.

It’s hard, though.

My work has entered into a space where the business models are unclear, and so my personal revenue is precarious. I’m not particularly money-minded but the constant uncertainty around it creates an anxiety that I find hard to control. So, while I’m crystal clear on the subject I am working on – including its importance to the future of health – I am less clear on how to sustain it.

And this makes me doubt myself.


Over the last 36 hours I’ve struggled to decide how to handle that doubt. Over dinner, I tried to suppress it, the manifestation of which seemed to be that I withdrew from the rest of the group. I don’t know if that was apparent to the others but it’s how I felt. By the end of dinner, however, I realised how deeply blessed I am to have such a smart and caring group of people on my Board. On the way home I felt energised, if a little daunted by (my perception of) their expectations.

In the morning of the Board meeting, I woke up early, went through my notes, felt good about sharing the lessons from the past six months, and spent a thoroughly enjoyable three or four hours with them. In the back of my mind I was strategising about how I can restructure my life further to continue to fuel the runway needed for the work.

But by the afternoon, the doubt returned. It culminated in a few rants and a ‘wrap up’ for the day that was perhaps a little too honest about how hard the work is and the impact it has had on me. Is it my role to share such vulnerability? Should a leader exude unwavering confidence that constantly corrals people to follow? Or is it also important to share the uncertainty of the journey, and the impact of that uncertainty, so that your fellow travellers can support you?

I don’t know the answers, and, as may be obvious by my need to write this post, the feeling I’m left with is yet more uncertainty.

Through our work, we proactively seek out courageous innovators but only include those that share, often in a whisper, that they don’t really know what they’re doing. We talk about wanting to help them share the struggle, feel less lonely, and hence be emboldened to push on. Intellectually, then, I know what I am feeling is par for the course. But it doesn’t stop me feeling uncertain about the work, doubtful of my self, and convinced that such a great Board deserves a better leader.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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