Confidence in Leadership : What is it good for?

Andrew Weaver
May 5, 2023

Confidence plays an integral role in many of our daily interactions particularly at work, and whilst it’s not something covered by business schools it should be in an era when style is often the bluff for a lack of substance.

I know how different levels of confidence have impacted some of my career and life decisions, where a lack of it has taken me down the wrong path, where a lack of positive feedback caused negative thoughts to crowd out otherwise positive affirmations.

I could display an assertive approach but under the surface I was making key decisions based on an implicit lack of confidence so that I took on the safe role where I could easily excel, rather than the challenge one that might lead to a richer and deeper sense of both achievement and purpose.

It slowed down my growth as a leader when caught in a fixed mindset that focused on short term gain, not long term purpose driven and a wider sense of satisfaction.

There can be a vicious cycle at play for people who suffer from a lack of confidence and/or have a high expectation of failure which leads directly to an impact on performance and career.

Research shows that when people are put in situations where they subconsciously expect or are expected to fail, their performance plummets. They turn into different people, their heads literally shut down and they end up confirming the expectations.

When they expect or are expected to win, their performance shoots back up.

As a manager or leader, you not only have to grapple with these issues when assessing performance but you also need to manage the issue of confidence over competence, when recruiting and team building.

Dangers of Confidence

Good news is that this is a well researched field.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, is a professor of business psychology at University College London and author of a book called, Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity and Self Doubt 

During an HBR article he was interviewed about the dangers of confidence and commented;

“Confident people tend to be more charismatic, extroverted, and socially skilled which in most cultures are highly desirable features. We also tend to equate confidence with competence. So we automatically assume that confident people are also more able-skilled or talented.

In reality, however, there is a very big difference between confidence and competence. Competent people are generally confident, but confident people are generally not competent. They are just good at hiding their incompetence and their insecurities mostly because they are self-deceived themselves, so they generally think that they are much better than they actually are”

So if we’re sometimes at risk of being deceived by confidence, how do you tell the difference between bullshit and someone who’s actually competent? How does this impact you as a tech leader and also your assessment of others, when recruiting and team building because confidence is often a method or path people take when assessing candidates.

In reality this mostly leads to inaccurate evaluations of people’s competence because the correlation between confidence and competence is very low and because it often acts as a detractor.

For example, most people who interview really, really well if you didn’t have evidence or information on their actual talent or competence, you would assume that they’re great. But in reality, they’re just charming the interviewers during that session. So we tend to rely on confident signs, but our goal is always to understand how competent somebody is, whether that’s a prospective employee, whether that’s a prospective partner, a colleague, a friend, somebody you engage within a business transaction.

So you need to understand that the goal is to know how competent others are. We don’t really care how confident they are.

It doesn’t help that our time poor, social media culture has created an army of so called influencers, coaches, online gurus, with their soundbite quotes, memes and quick fix advice. Style over substance, confidence over competence is a regular but unattractive addition to the modern CV. You need to have the antennae to weed them out of the process asap.

I know of one individual (and there are many out there) with little obvious experience or success as an entrepreneur, has re-invented himself as a “business coach to high achieving entrepreneurs” with the standard accoutrements of podcast, keynote speaking engagements and of course, the best selling book.

Maybe you can coach the best footballers in the world without ever having scored a goal at the Nou Camp but it’s good to know you can at least lace up your boots correctly.

Within the start up world confidence ahead of competence is common, and unhealthy. The ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra might be necessary for early stage survival and traction but can have a negative mental health impact when founders spend too much time portraying a false reality to themselves, as well as the world.

But as it’s a culture that can create confidence tricksters who walk away with $1.7bn then it’s going to generate wannabe copycats with the capacity to ignore thousands of redundancies and endless losses as they chase that illusory overnight success.

In the corporate world, many suffer from the incompetent but confident self-promoter, who strategically climbs the corporate ladder until something called the peter principle kicks in, where an individuals career stops at the level of his or her incompetence.

Key ingredients behind high achievers and great leaders is not the aforementioned superficial confidence but instead, competence, humility and authenticity.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic again ….

“It’s a well-known fact that humility or modesty is the key ingredient of great leadership. So until we stop making decisions on the basis of confidence rather than competence, we will keep having arrogant, impulsive, narcissistic people in charge.

Also we will keep making it hard for women who are usually both more humble and competent than men in these domains, from rising to the top.

So once we accept this, all we need to do is focus on assessing actual talent instead of getting distracted by people’s confidence and then we will actually see humility as an important added bonus. So once you know that somebody’s good at something, if they are humble that’s an extra asset, as opposed to a career killer, as humility and modesty can be a career killer for many people”

We conclude this article with a few thoughts on building confidence … whether for yourself or those around you!

A Few Thoughts On Building Confidence

  1. Understand Yourself & Be Authentic

Don’t be what anyone else wants or thinks you should be. It’s only when you have a strong sense of yourself and your purpose and how to play to your strengths that true competence, confidence and positive thinking emerge.

2. Surround Yourself With Great People

Whether you believe in the theory that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with surrounding yourself with positive, can-do people who believe in you, will spike your self-esteem.

Many people have the innate ability to do well but are downtrodden by those around them and/or the stereotyping and expectations of what’s expected of them. Close friendships take time and care but when I reflect on mine I can see so much I admire and love about those close to me people and how their friendship has impacted and improved my historic issues with confidence and self-esteem.

3. Become Competent

Unless you’re Mozart (genius) or a finalist in the X-Factor (something else), there are no short cuts to being good at something.

It comes down to hard work around topics like focus, preparation, practice and application.

Give yourself sufficient space to learn and grow into competence. Not only does it allow you to speak with authority but it also allows you to weed out the BS in others.

Always schedule and prepare well. Get organised, focus on the priorities, manage your time properly.

Give yourself the space to flourish. These are leadership skills 1.0 that you need to embed into your skill set.

4. Build Your Ability To Empathise and Empower

To become a great manager and leader you need to learn the art of empathy and to manage with compassion.

You also need to enable others to become the best they can be and maybe outshine you.

You should not be protecting your empire, a curse of so many managers in the corporate world, you should be inspiring and encouraging others to perform at their peak. How amazing will that be for you, your business and the people around you?

5. Think Long Term

A curse and blockage for many aspects of western culture is short termism.

Whether it’s the short political cycles or jumping from one job to another, we can all be impacted by a lack of longer term vision.

I was certainly motivated by the wrong things (cash and a good time) during early parts of my career rather than focus on what would make me happy and finding my true purpose.

A book that advanced my thinking around this subject is Flow, Psychology of Optimal Experience. and the principles of which have definitively shaped my later years.A book that has stayed with me for years.

6. Adopt Amor Fati … “a love of fate”‘

Stop regretting past decisions.

You made those decisions based on who you were at the time and the influences that were then shaping your decision-making process. If you were back in that place again you would make the same decision because that’s who you were then.

Instead, adopt what Nietzsche called his formula for human greatness … that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it but love it.

An extension of this from that old Stoic, Epictetus … “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy”

Learn from everything, grow from the experience.

7. Set Small Goals, Change Habits Slowly

Everyday I see on social media quotes from James Clear and his Atomic Habits ‘ but there’s a reason for his popularity because they include many principles you should consider adopting.

Set yourself large targets but small goals.

The aggregation of marginal gains is a mantra that recently enabled the Great Britain cycling team to achieve greatness.

It can work the same for you and your ambition to achieve great things.

Building good habits and slow changes into your life should lead you towards remarkable transformations and achievements, that you would never have thought possible at the start.

8. Be Grateful, Express Gratitude Constantly

The power of gratitude is infectious. Get used to giving it.

So many wonderful people are willing to give you time, insight, help and no matter how humble they might be, they will love your gratitude and might even consider giving you more in the future.

Gratitude works both ways, giving is important and leaves you with a glow inside. Think about the ripple impact every time you smile or say thank you to someone, the recipient is more likely to go forth and take your positivity into other corners of their world.

Having an impact, being grateful, empowering others is an intoxicating brew that makes your dent on the world feel just a little more substantial. It all builds up your sense of who you are and what you can contribute.

9. Activity, Exercise, Wellness

We can all become so absorbed in work and life and stuff that we forget to clear the diary for some “me time”.

Good mental and physical health is so important yet so often neglected. It’s particularly neglected if you’re suffering from self-esteem issues and feeling bad about yourself. Instead of reaching for positive stimuli, you’re reaching for that packet of chocolate biscuits.

No matter how busy or committed you are to the business, family, boss always ring-fence time for yourself and what makes you feel positive and stimulated. Exercise, Walks, People, Books.

Don’t slink back into bad habits, fix your stare on targets and positive me time.

Personal Development and Mindset is something we care about deeply at CTO Academy, as we see a lack of attention on both subjects as fundamental to the blockages some of our clients are facing with their career.

We provide lectures on the subjects within our course material.

[Article written by Andrew Weaver, very humble Co-Founder of CTO Academy]

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