Putting the inner critic in its place

The Marketing Academy is an international scholarship supported by leaders in the industry. Every year, thirty emerging executives are chosen for the nine month program which includes mentorship and coaching. I was privileged to be chosen in 2022. This article was published in the TMA legacy magazine in 2022.

Is your inner critic in the driver seat of your own leadership journey? Here’s how TMA scholar John Kerrison wrestled doubt and indecision.

The Opera House tiles were glowing in the Sydney sunrise. I could feel the stress forming in my jaw as I walked along Circular Quay not long after dawn. I was unusually nervous which made my overnight bag feel awkward and heavy.  I was about to meet my new scholarship colleagues from The Marketing Academy for the first time.

I was arriving for the kick off bootcamp. I had every reason to be excited yet my inner critic was on overdrive, chattering away about whether I was worthy of this wonderful opportunity. Who was I to be among this talented bunch of people?

I joined the crowd of unknown faces on a ferry to Manly for our first TMA bootcamp and a bonding experience second to none in the world of creative leadership development.

It’s not easy to shift that chattering voice from the driver seat that says ‘you’re not worthy’ but it’s a challenge all leaders need to accept. 

In a rich communication career including public relations for AMP Insurance in an early incarnation; journalism and news presenting across Australia; and executive roles in the NSW Public Service, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was smooth sailing. I haven’t made very many of these decisions on my own. Yes, the doubt and indecision monster has been along for most of that journey.

So how do you get rid of the inner critic? You probably don’t. That might seem disheartening at first yet wonderful writing by the psychologist Paul Gilbert helps us understand what that little voice is trying to do. It’s trying to keep us safe. 

In Paul Gilbert’s groundbreaking book The Compassionate Mind, he outlines various emotional systems that can inspire, motivate and protect us. We need to be careful about the protection system because it’s sometimes working a little too hard. 

Gilbert writes, ‘These emotional conflicts are not our fault because our minds are designed to do just this. So if people try to tell you that you need to be assertive and know your own mind, the answer is: sure but I have three or four different minds all struggling to be heard.’ 

That inner critic is hard to ignore for a reason.

Time and time again, The Marketing Academy bootcamp provided a unique space to do something radical and counter intuitive. The inner critic was given the floor. The doubts and fears that so easily come to the surface were shared and tackled as a group. 

The voice that says you’re lesser because only you know fear and sadness? Well this critic is the most unreliable of all. 

TMA founder, Sherilyn Shackell was in Australia for the first gathering in Manly. Shackell led the cohort through ‘The Living Leader’.  The program was developed in the United Kingdom by Penny Ferguson. One exercise asks participants to drop their masks and share fears and vulnerabilities. For the first time I shared stories of my own childhood anxieties, wrestling with guilt and shame over my sexuality. These formative years were furtive soil for a pretty boisterous and influential inner critic. 

Scholar after scholar let down their guard and with generous grace, used the workshop to share the suffering and trials that define the person they are today. It was profoundly moving.

Every human we deal with will have some baggage. The challenge for leaders is to help people put those bags on wheels. 

In an ancient Asian text, a woman whose son has died pleads with the Buddha to give him life again. The Buddha instructs the woman to go into a nearby village and collect mustard seeds from all the families not touched by suffering and death. If he has enough seeds, he promises to make medicine to bring her child back to life. The local people are willing to offer the seeds but none can say they’ve not had these great sadnesses. Upon returning to the Buddha the next day, the woman knows this was a promise the Buddha could never keep, and the message is clear: fear, sadness and suffering are universal.

One sure fire way to deaden the influence of these doubts is to make them “outer” critics by sharing them with colleagues and peers. 

The TMA cohort gathered for a cafe breakfast in Barangaroo at bootcamp two in July. As a group of friends, we share a common truth– vulnerability and authenticity are tools to not only lead others but also lead ourselves.

The breakfast chatter was noisy. This was a table of kindred spirits recounting stories of how TMA was changing their work and personal lives. It was a far cry from our tentative meeting at Circular Quay. The laughing and joy echoed across the cafe.  These relationships have been key to me remembering that the voice of doubt has a role to play but it’s not in the driver seat.