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Do you need to be confident to be a good leader?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

The issue of self-confidence is the single topic that comes up most often when I'm coaching, even when it’s not been identified as an issue at the start of the coaching programme. There is often an assumption that a lack of confidence means that you are not doing a good job. Some people are even reluctant to admit that they sometimes lack confidence, because the belief that confidence is essential to good leadership is so deeply ingrained.

Well, I’d like to pick that apart a little.

Firstly, most people would tell you that they’d hate to be managed by someone who was arrogant - whose idea of their own capability didn’t match the reality. Working with people like that is not enjoyable, and you can be pretty sure they don’t have the respect and trust of their teams.

So it’s definitely possible to be too confident. What about not-confident-enough?

The concept of “imposter syndrome”, the feeling that you are not as capable as others think you are, has become omnipresent in recent years. The term was first coined in the late 70’s and since then there have been endless articles, books and motivational speakers who claim to offer the solution.

Certainly, imposter syndrome can be a problem and hold you back. If you are constantly doubting yourself then it becomes hard to speak up in meetings, take credit for your work, or even to recognise that you’ve done something well. In some cases, this self-doubt can show up in other problematic ways, such as extreme perfectionism or putting other people down. It could also lead to stress or burnout. If this is the case for you then I would definitely recommend seeking some support from a coach or similar to address the underlying causes and find some strategies to reframe your approach.

But (and it’s a big but), imposter syndrome is also incredibly common. The vast majority of leaders (about 70% apparently) experience it at least sometimes. And I think most of us experience it at a level that’s probably pretty healthy.

The reality of the modern world of work and the constant change and uncertainty it brings means that it’s unlikely any of us will be able to step into a role and then never have to deal with something new and unexpected. There will always be times when you’re not sure what to do next.

The impact this will have is determined by how you frame and approach it.

How about instead of focusing on being confident, you focus on being comfortable? Comfortable with yourself and comfortable with not always having all the answers.

Understanding yourself and your strengths, and accepting you can’t be good at everything is a sign of great leadership - especially if you are comfortable enough to build a team around you that fills any gaps.

Being able to stand back and admit that something isn’t your area of expertise, or that someone else is better placed to do this it, is incredibly powerful. Not only are you showing that you understand the limits of your own skills and knowledge, you are powerfully modelling that for everyone around you.

You’re only human. Don’t be afraid to admit it.

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