Is Confidence Over-Rated?

Originally Published December 2, 2020

Many of us have this picture of a successful leader as someone who is confident and decisive. The problem with that view of leadership is this: When we as leaders feel less than confident regarding the best path forward we may start to doubt our ability to lead . . . yet our willingness to question our own thinking may actually be a sign of superior leadership. Which might prompt one to ask, “Is confidence over-rated?”

In Good to Great, Jim Collins notes a Level 5 Leader demonstrates personal humility and professional will. Blair Shepherd from PwC identifies one of the six paradoxes of leadership as the “humble hero”. And, there is a growing body of research on the importance of intellectual humility in innovative problem solving — a key aspect of effective leadership.

Okay, so it would seem that humility is a good thing. Is confidence the opposite of humility . . . thereby making it a bad thing? Actually, arrogance is the opposite of humility, and arrogance does negatively impact your ability to lead. Arrogance is an exaggerated sense of superiority — “I’m the leader, therefore my ideas are the best ideas.” True confidence comes not from thinking you have all the answers, but from a recognition of your skills and abilities — “I may not know the answer right now, but I have the tools to figure it out.” Humility is a recognition of the strengths of others as well as the limits of one’s own importance — “By listening to and learning from others, we can arrive at the best solution. It’s not all about me.”

Arrogance shouts, humility listens, confidence deliberates.

Confidence isn’t over-rated, but it is often ill-defined. Confidence is not about having all the answers. (Whew!) It is about knowing you have the ability to figure things out. Confidence brings calm. It encourages curiosity. It considers options. It steps forward courageously, and recalibrates when necessary. Confidence is also contagious. When a leader demonstrates it, followers gain it. As noted above, true confidence is often laced with humility — “It’s not about me, but it is up to me.” 

Feeling less than confident? Remember, just because you don’t have the answer right now doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability to find a solution. Decide that you’re going to get there, take a deep breath, seek input from others, and then take a step. It’s the best way to get to the other side. Of that, I am confident.

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