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Have you got the confidence to be a great leader?


Elaine Wilson gives us some great advice on leadership development.

It’s one of those attention-grabbing questions, albeit for not quite the right reasons. Who doesn’t want to be a great leader, or think they have what it takes? As those posing and framing referenda or opinion polls are aware, the phrasing of the question can also influence the answer – or even the thinking and feeling that precedes and shapes it.

By referring to only one quality, the question subtly suggests that confidence is the deal breaker. Many, it seems, would agree. Interviewed in February 2014, Mike Clasper CBE, recently appointed president-elect of the Chartered Management Institute, said: “A lot of leadership is about confidence and it's about being ready to make a decision if it's the right time. I think many tend to be scared in this aspect”. Francisco Dao, former leadership columnist for, took this a little further in one opening paragraph: “There is one particular component of leadership that is so important, so necessary, that without it, leadership cannot exist. That component is confidence.”

Although this is true, it is also fundamentally false. It suggests we might compare confidence to good shoes; both are a vital platform on which everything else stands. Shoes are essential, but not the whole answer. A sentence in Mr Dao’s second paragraph seemed closer to the mark: “Trying to teach leadership without first building confidence is like building a house on a foundation of sand.” But it still, perhaps, depends on our definition of confidence. Look it up in a thesaurus and you will find a multitude of synonyms, although they suggest slightly different flavours; determination (which can be misguided); courage (but even the timid can display that, surely?); firmness (but it’s equally a synonym of rigidity); daring (admirable in flying machines, but perhaps not in offices).

If we are talking about becoming a great leader, the assumption that confidence is the foundation stone seems to stop one question short of a full interview process – what is the foundation of their confidence? If their personal flavour of confidence is closer to determination and ambition, bear in mind that ambition alone is a very poor indicator of future success for those moving up the organisational leadership ladder. Confidence, like any ingredient, can also be overdone, marring the final flavour. Lord Owen is best known as a politician, but in his early career he was neurology and psychiatric registrar at St Thomas's Hospital. Some years ago, he drew on both strands of experience to explore a century of US and UK leaders and the difficulty of hubris. Writing for a medical journal he commented:

"Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadth of vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirations and bold self-confidence—these qualities are often associated with successful leadership. Yet there is another side to this profile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate."

Four of the examples of hubris in action were: Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Thatcher and Blair. All ultimately toppled by backbench pressure, providing an important leadership lesson: just because there is no one above us doesn’t mean those below will continue to obediently follow us.

This form of confidence is perhaps best described as being born of personality traits. A key to understanding, working with and making most effective use of these traits is self-awareness – something that can be argued to be a truer basis of ‘great’ leadership. Relationships are another vital element of successful leadership, and successful relationships require self-awareness and self-knowledge. This is one reason for the widespread use in leadership development programmes of 360-degree feedback and psychometric instruments such as FIRO-B. The Hogan Development Survey is particularly relevant with its indications of strengths that may become Achilles Heels if they are deployed too often, too rigorously or ignorantly. If those you lead will subsequently judge you, pre-emptive self-assessment can be the proverbial stitch in time that saves nine.

There is another basis of confidence, which is to know we have – or are developing – the skills, knowledge and behaviours that are required of a situation. Leadership is not so different from many other elements of life. While some may never be good at it, even those who become good parents are likely to be nervous, apprehensive and self-questioning in the months after birth. Fledgling musicians and actors tremble in trepidation as the curtain comes up. For some, a lack of self-confidence may be their undoing, either temporarily or more permanently; but for most a period of preparatory time spent honing their abilities, receiving not just ‘teaching’ (ie skills and knowledge inputs) but feedback and coaching, and being allowed spaces for safe practice will develop not just their abilities but their own faith in them.

Confidence – in the sense of not ducking awkward conversations, avoiding difficult decisions or shying away from challenges – without the abilities to meet challenges, the wisdom to lead in difficult environments and the openness to others to understand what their trust and engagement require of their leader, it is likely to be insufficient.

By all means build confidence as part of the foundation of leadership, but remember that the confidence stands on something else in turn.

Elaine Wilson is managing consultant at ASK Europe

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