Confidence and humility in leaders

One of the joys of my job is the ability to observe people performing in their roles as leaders. The psychologist in me loves the field study presented every day. Over the last 25 years I’ve had the fortune to observe a number of hugely successful leaders perform live in their roles and to see the rise (and sometimes fall) of many others.

Amongst the most successful, those that no only lead their organisation to success, but who manage to do it whilst remaining generally popular, liked and trusted, there exists the ability to manage one of the most important tensions in leadership. That between confidence and humility.

For decades, we’ve approached appointments into leadership with an unnatural focus on confidence. We base our assessments around it, we appraise and review people against it and, particularly in the West, we have made it a central part of our definition of a leader.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of our corporate scandals have resulted from a level of over confidence bordering on arrogance. When you create a boardroom full of over confident (normally) white (normally) men, throw in a large dose of confirmation bias, the relentless pursuit of a collective goal is both a strength and a fundamental weakness.

What great leaders and leadership teams bring, is the counterbalance of humility. In fact, as we see public demands for greater transparency, better governance and a broader social purpose, it would be fair to argue that the need for humility becomes even greater.

The relentless pursuit needs to be balanced with collective responsibility, a constant awareness of strength and weakness, a collective conscious and the willingness to understand and accept when things have gone, or are going, wrong. Simply put, the best leaders are able to accept that they cannot, and will not, always be right. And they are ok with that.

For those of us that work in and around HR, recruitment, leadership assessment, our challenge is how we help to redefine the established norms in our organisations and work. We all need leaders that aspire us, who breed confidence and hope and who will follow over the top. But we also need those that are strong enough to admit that sometimes, they’ll get it wrong.

 

Pious indignation and false promises

Running an organisation of any size is tricky. There is an assumption that simply because of your position that you must know the correct answer for everything.  Not only must your actions be without criticism, but your intentions too. And we will be the judges and juries of both.

Our intolerance of imperfection and propensity for cynicism serves us badly.

I’m in no way trying to absolve genuinely corrupt, immoral and (let’s be honest) bad organisations. Merely to make an argument for encouragement for improvement, rather than blanket judgment. It should also be said that this isn’t a factor of business alone, you could run the same slide rule over politics and other parts of society too.

Last week Tortoise published their assessment of the FTSE100 against the UN  sustainable development goals, you can see the full report here. What I think is fascinating about the approach is that it looks at both actions and PR, the walk and the talk. Of the top 20 companies overall, only 4 were “guilty” of overselling their actions and many quite significantly undersold their performance. Probably not what you’d think from big business, right?

Compare and contrast with the annual vacuous press release from the CIPD and High Pay Centre which talks about FTSE100 pay, high on moral indignation and low on understanding and intellectual rigour. Frothing at the mouth and screaming into the abyss on a topic of significant complexity without any intention to encourage or support change.

We say that we want change and then we right off progress as “washing”. Pinkwashing, purpose washing, vegan washing, even woke washing. We will be the judges of whether you really mean what you say, not you.

If we wanted to develop an organisational culture of positive strength, would we start by doubting individual intentions, blanket criticism, reinforcing stereotypes? Or would we praise and recognise, reinforce positive behaviours, encourage?

There is a lot wrong in the world, that goes without saying.  Business, politics, society, sport, media, take your pick. Whilst we should always call out the abuse of power and serious malpractice, I also believe you get the culture you deserve. Maybe we should spend a little more time celebrating and encouraging change, supporting and championing progress?

It might not make for the most exciting headlines, “Organisations do what they say they’re going to do”, or help us absolve our own consciences, but it would sure make for a more pleasant world.

Beliefs, behaviours and systems

The beginning of any year always coincides with commitments to do things differently. Whether in our personal lives or in the workplace, there is something about the reflection caused by a change in year that leads to a desire to change. You only have to ask gyms and health clubs to know this is true.

You also only need to check back in with the same gyms and health clubs one or two month later to know that so many of the commitments just don’t stick.

Anyone that has worked in a team for any period of time will have been through a similar inflection point, with a desire to make a change, make things different, to sort things out. And similarly, most will have seen them fail.

There are three things that are likely to make a change more effective, whether that’s a personal fitness goal, or a work based initiative. Beliefs, behaviours and systems. Unless all of these three are present in some form or another, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Beliefs – Do people really understand and want to make the change that you’re trying to achieve? Do they believe that the steps you’re outlining will actually make the difference? Do they really want a new, different, reality?

Behaviours – Are people really willing to take their personal responsibility to do something differently? Do they recognise the way that they behave supports and reinforces the way things are right now?

Systems – Are the structures and processes that we have in place reinforcing where we are now? Do we need to add something new in, or take something away? Does the environment support the different outcomes we want to see?

(NB. I’ve used the plural, but the singular equally applies if you’re making personal change)

Whether we are applying this to the desire to get fit, stop drinking or stop smoking. Or whether we are applying this to the desire to have better team meetings, better decision making, or simpler governance. Essentially the same three criteria apply.

Whatever change you’re tackling in the new year, whatever outcome you want to achieve, spending a few minutes evaluating these three component parts is  more likely to lead to sustained success and less likely to lead to the February blues.

Time and space is the greatest gift

Anyone who has ever been through the process of moving house understands the sensation of discovering a vast array of stuff that has been squirreled away in various cupboards, drawers and hideaways over the years. We also all probably recognise the thought process that led to us holding on to the item in the first place. It goes something like this,

I’ll get rid of that. 

Wait, hang on…maybe it will be useful.

I’ve got space.

I’ll just tuck it in here.

Fantastic, I’ll always have that, you know, just in case…

And of course, the extra foot for the microwave oven, the instructions for the long broken CD player, the box from the expensive chocolates that we were bought by a random relative several years ago, all sit idle in the cupboard in which they were placed until we are absolutely compelled to face into their inutility and avoid the transportation costs.

Unfortunately, we very rarely have the same opportunity within our organisations to spring clean and start afresh. The one exception that I can think of is in a merger or acquisition, where there are a new set of eyes looking in the metaphorical cupboards. So instead of cleaning out we continue to either force more “stuff” into the available space or instead increase capacity.

But we aren’t dealing with cupboards and stuff, we are dealing with people and processes and the effect of this is to place our colleagues and teams under increasing pressure to manage the conflicting requirements in a bewildered and beffudled state. How many times have you heard, “I just don’t know why we do this anymore?” or, “I’m not actually sure what happens with that”?

And our organisational lives are even worse, because when we “move house”, instead of taking our rubbish with us, we leave it behind for someone else to come and add to. Generation and generation of leaders come, take a look and implement. Because we all know that if something isn’t happening, the answer is to change the process…right?

Every organisation exists to fulfill a clear purpose, management is about helping to achieve that purpose, it is never and should never be an activity in itself. We exist to help and facilitate our teams and people, to make their lives easy, to allocate resource and to remove barriers.

Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to get the hell out of the way, to declutter and throw out those unnecessary activities and to create a bit of space to breathe, think and act. That, my friends, is true leadership.