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.

 

Fads, fashions and the self-confident leader

Hands up if you’ve never looked at a photo from your past and thought, “what was I doing wearing that?”, or looked in the dark recesses of your wardrobe and seen the unworn, unloved item that at the time of purchasing, you were convinced would make you look swathe, sophisticated and downright sexy.

My guess is there’s not many hands in the air (not least because that sort of thing gets you thrown off the train or bus).

The point is that we are all susceptible to following along with a trend, a fashion or fad that we later realise wasn’t perhaps in our best interest. We do this in work and in business all the time – it is no different to any other aspect of life.

The corporate corridors are littered with the failed and reversed decisions made by leaders at all levels, because they read, heard or were advised that “everyone else is doing x”. It happens in HR, it happens across business and it is entirely and completely natural.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Its not hard to understand why we make these decisions, we’re often proposed something that feels simple, easy to implement, is recommended by “experts”, has some sort of resonance with a broader meta-trend within the world and will lead to tangible, measurable improvement.

We’ve seen this with mass outsourcing, TQM, holacracy, management by consensus, management by objective, the Ulrich model. I could go on.

None of these practices are in themselves bad, what is questionable is the wholesale implementation of these across the corporate spectrum without consideration of the best way of implementing change for the specific organisational context.

And that’s where the self confident leader comes in. In the same way that the phrase goes, “no-one ever got fired for hiring Deloitte/McKinsey/IBM” (delete as appropriate to your age and era), there is often reassurance in moving with the homogenous mass. That is part of our psychological makeup.

The role of the leader is to have the confidence, the willingness and the space to be able to call out when this isn’t in the best interests of their organisation, function or team. It is  to push the thinking, the creation of ideas and the solutions beyond the realms of accepted wisdom, to test whether it is really the right way forward.

No-one ever said being a leader is easy, in fact the better you want to be, the harder it can feel. Standing up and not doing the things that others are, can be harder than following. But sometimes the most fertile soil is found in the least worked ground.