Self-confidence is a prerequisite for leadership. But like other laudable qualities, confidence must be kept in balance. Successful leaders believe in themselves and their capabilities. They also are not afraid to be wrong or make mistakes. They are bold, yet have their feet firmly planted in reality.
Heidi Grant Halvorson profiled Alan Greenspan in her blog post called Why Some Leaders Don’t Learn From Their Mistakes. Mr. Greenspan, she says, has yet to take any responsibility for inaction on the part of the Federal Reserve in the months and years before the financial crisis. Halvorson believes that Greenspan falls prey to what psychologists call self-serving bias. This is our protective brain telling us that if something goes wrong, it must be someone else’s fault. Conversely, success must be something we are responsible for creating.
So is it any wonder that organizational leaders become overconfident and forget that they’re fallible? How can you avoid the pitfall of being too sure of yourself?
Recognize limitations. Motivational speakers tout the “fact” that if you believe you can do something, then you can. Actually, the opposite is more universally true. If you don’t have confidence, you won’t succeed. Unfortunately, confidence doesn’t create competence, and sometimes people just can’t achieve something they really want.
Admit insecurities. The root of the self-serving bias is insecurity. If we really are not convinced that we deserve our position or know enough, our minds work overtime to compensate. It can be difficult to admit to insecurities. The consequences of not doing so are even more dire.
Practice curiosity. Leaders get paid to be certain, or at least that’s how it appears. Rather than thinking you have to know or decide something now, suspend judgment. Spend time asking questions and give yourself permission to find new answers. If you seek first to understand, you may find that there’s a world of unexplored possibilities you would have otherwise missed.
Change your mind. Because the new, curious you has ventured into uncharted territory, you may find that you’ve been wrong in the past. Be willing to change your mind about things that used to be certain.
Change your behavior. A confident leader seeks regular feedback and makes disciplined efforts to improve performance on an ongoing basis.
Cultivate genuineness. One behavior to change might be your leadership persona. Some organizational cultures overly-reward charisma and a brash leadership presence. Instead of bravado and fast talk, be authentic in your demeanor. When your bearing is driven by a desire to do your very best – to move the organization and its people forward – there can be no artifice. You must be the real you. Anything else is for the benefit of your own ego.
True confidence is rooted in humility. So don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong, and do take your lumps and learn from them. “Create the kind of self you will be happy to live with all your life” (Golda Meir).
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