A lack of confidence presents a challenge for many managers, and not just for the younger or less experienced ones.
Every year, we work with hundreds of leaders at all levels, from first-line to CEO, and the challenge is every bit as prevalent for those at the top as those new to leading others. Let’s look at some of the biggest issues when it comes to a lack of confidence, and possible strategies for dealing with them.
Low self esteem
Many people, regardless of their achievements or how they are perceived by others, are affected by low self-esteem. It can stem from childhood, school, bullying, past failures, personal relationship issues, and many other sources.
My wife, who is retired and in her 60s, still regularly recites a mantra that comes from a comment in a school report a teacher wrote about her more than half a century ago. It still hurts even after all this time, despite a successful career operating at senior levels in the civil service, local government, and private industry.
I grew up as a ginger kid in a poor area, and was bullied at home and at school. Had I not become a successful musician and toured the world, and afterwards entered the business world and become a CEO, it might well have left me damaged and repressed. It still rises to the surface occasionally, to make me abandon an idea for fear of ridicule, allow myself to be disadvantaged, or take a criticism too personally.
If this is an issue that affects you, then all I can say is this: find the courage to talk about it to a professional or to someone you trust completely. These are ‘demons’ that need to be exorcised and can hold you back all your life. The great majority, at least in my experience, are not even founded in truth, but in unfortunate situations.
Arrogance is a poor trait in a leader, but so is low self-esteem. It prevents you from being the best version of yourself, and from having the positive impact on others you are truly capable of. Value yourself and take joy in every good thing you do and in every achievement, however small it might seem at the time. Watch Drew Dudley’s excellent TED talk about ‘everyday leadership’. He’s dead right.
Many leaders (far more than you might imagine) have times when they doubt their own ability to be ‘up to the job’ and expect that someone might, at any minute, tap them on the shoulder and say ‘there’s been a terrible mistake, you shouldn’t have got this job. Please clear your desk’.
I can assure you that I’ve worked with some very powerful and successful people in very highly-paid positions who have admitted to having such feelings. I’ve been there myself. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any leader, especially at the most senior levels, that hasn’t felt like this at some point is probably a little deluded and potentially dangerous.
Some amount of self-doubt is the thing that keeps you reflective, and makes you challenge your own assumptions and decisions. It stops you from developing megalomania. It only becomes a problem when it prevents you from taking courageous decisions.
Incidentally, our clients and the hundreds of leaders we mentor often find that one of the happy by-products of becoming professionally qualified is that it banishes many of these ‘demons’, and helps them to feel that they deserve to be there. As a leader or manager, you need to learn to trust yourself.
Unrealistic self-perceptions or expectations
One thing I’ve noticed of many who lack confidence is that they punish themselves unnecessarily and regularly, telling themselves that they aren’t achieving as much as they should be. I was working with a senior leader recently who was beating herself up because she hadn’t completed all the jobs on her to-do-list that day. I had a look. No-one could possibly have completed that list of jobs in a single day. Albert Einstein would have failed in the task, and it would have defeated two people, yet she felt somehow that she should have been able to do it, and therefore told herself she was a failure.
Life is hard enough, and the role of a leader challenging enough as it is, without you making it harder for yourself. You need to be objective about your expectations, setting yourself stretching but feasible goals.
While this isn’t essentially a gender issue, I do find that it is more prevalent in female leaders. My to-do-list, were I to write one (which I don’t for many of these reasons) would probably contain about four items, at least one of which I actually nearly finished yesterday. It isn’t cheating as such, it’s just that I know how important it is for me to feel good about myself and my work.
On the other hand, you mustn’t make excuses for yourself, or rationalise away your failures as ‘someone else’s fault’… that doesn’t help either. You need to be accurate and honest with yourself, reflecting on what you should have done differently when you fail.
Learn and progress, and do it better next time. When you succeed, celebrate it and recognise the value that you have added. Take pleasure in it and reflect again, so that you can see what happened and why. That way you can learn from your successes too.
Earn the right to feel confident by doing good work. Arrogance is confidence that is undeserved, while legitimate self-confidence breeds success. Think on.