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.

 

The myth of the external candidate

I’m always slightly nervous when it comes to comparing internal and external candidates. In many ways it is like moving house. On one hand you have you have the wonderful description of a potential property and beautifully taken photos and on the other, you have your current abode, lived in and known.  You can take a few visits, have a look around, you can even get a surveyor’s report, but it will never amount to the knowledge and experience you have from years lived within, learning the good the bad and the indifferent.

Of course there are ways you can be more objective about the comparison, you can run aptitude tests, profiling and be as structured in the assessment as possible. But I’m not sure you can ever completely counterbalance the opportunity of being unknown. Let’s take something like stakeholder management. An external candidate will give you examples of where they’ve been successful, how they’ve managed competing demands and ultimately you can only assume this to be true. The internal candidate may tell you the same, but you’ll also have the feedback from the stakeholders themselves.

The only way I’ve found to approach this situation is to add in the equivalent of a balancing number. On one hand assume that the external candidate will be 15-20% less good than you assess them to be. On the other add a factor for growth to the internal candidate, based on your knowledge of their current performance.  Then look at the two adjusted performances and try to make a comparison based on this revised approach.

Ultimately, if an internal candidate can get within distance of the external candidate based on this assessment it feels like the right thing to do to allow them to develop and grow. It’s not the most scientific approach, I grant you, but in the absence of anything genuinely more objective, I’ll be sticking to my old school ways.

Just a middle class white guy

I have a confession to make. A thing that has been weighing on my mind for a while now, lying in the deep recesses of my consciousness, troubling me. There is something that I want to get off my chest, something that I want to share, that I feel I need to share.

I’m a white middle class male and I may not actually deserve what I have achieved.

“Achieved” to successfully bring about or reach (a desired objective or result) by effort, skill, or courage….so that’s a joke in itself. What if it wasn’t through my effort, skill or courage. What if it was though the lottery of demographics, socio economics and genetics?

I’m not suggesting that anyone ever said, “lets give him the job because he’s a white male” or thought, “I should listen to him because he is a middle class, middle aged dude and he is bound to say something sensible”.

But what if it just happens….because of the way we are, the way we are brought up, the norms we are expected to adhere to?

I was sat in Berlin a few weeks ago, working as an assessor on an international development centre. Because it was a development centre and because, in HR, we have no imagination, there was a group exercise. When we came to the wash up and validation session, there was a debate about the scoring. My sense was that some of the candidates had been scored less highly than others because they’d said less. But they hadn’t contributed less. And they were disproportionately female.

One of the people I was observing had nodded, reaffirmed, encouraged, listened and supported. She didn’t say that much, but she had played an important role. Others suggested that as she hadn’t said anything, she couldn’t be rated highly for her contribution. These were skilled and experienced HR professionals.

And that is just one simple example.

I’ve learnt how to behave from my experience, I know how to position myself in a room, to hold myself to…..encourage, consider, control, direct. I can get my views heard and considered, not necessarily because I make sense, but because they make sense because they are coming from someone behaving in a way that makes us think that they must.

Does this help at interview? Sure. Does it help when you go for promotions? Of course. Does it mean that others have anything less to offer. Not at all.

I’m not sure I have any answers, I’m not sure I have even formulated the questions. The great thing about having a blog is that I don’t have to. This isn’t a text book, you’re not paying, I’m not Ulrich.

But it seems to me that the world of work is still heavily prejudiced towards certain ways of being, certain behaviours, certain mannerisms that are predominantly associated with the middle class, white guy like me. Which means that I might not be here because of what I do, but because of who I am.

And maybe, so are you.