Positives and Negatives of the Confident Leader

Is confidence important in a leader? In fact it’s mandatory, says Melissa McFarlane in today’s show. There is no leadership without confidence, since we don’t promote people into positions of leadership — and we don’t follow — people who lack at least a base-line level of self confidence.

Both Melissa and my second guest, Suzanne Bates, spoke highly of the value of anonymous or confidential 360-degree assessments to help leaders find out whether they had healthy confidence or excessive, unhealthy, narcissistic levels of confidence.

Melissa summarized it this way. Confidence works and is a good idea to share when:

  1. It is based on factual evidence
  2. It springs from personal experience
  3. It is supported with anecdotal-and-true stories
  4. It speaks to or connects with a “hot-button” , concern or interest of the audience.
  5. It is inclusive
  6. It is accompanied by/tempered with humor, curiosity or humility
  7. The executive/speaker believes in the message

Confidence does NOT work when:

  1. It ignores an “elephant” in the room (reality (facts), feelings or perceptions that pervade the current climate shared by the audience)
  2. It is uniformed (arbitrary)
  3. It is accompanied by arrogance – an “I/YOU” separation
  4. It is arguing or bullying
  5. It is hyperbolic
  6. It positions the speaker in the “better” light
  7. It is denigrating or otherwise diminishing to others

It is hard to imagine following somebody who lacks self-confidence, and who lacks confidence in the course of action they recommend.

As we explored this further, I asked if it’s clear why we like confidence. Melissa believes it’s related to safety and survival — that if we are going out on the savanna to hunt a lion, we want to be following somebody who gives us a belief that we will return safe, sound and successful.

If it turns out badly, we may turn on the leader and pull him down.

Certainly, we can see parallels with the prior episode on vision (blog entries here and here) — when we want people to have confidence in a positive future outcome, that has to be a message that we deliver with sincerity and confidence — and that means both confidence in ourselves and confidence in the outcome.

Perhaps the definition of confidence is: somebody whom we believe in, or somebody whose plan we believe in.

Melissa suggests that the fastest and most effective way to get confidence is through failure. Experience is good, and failure is better. In her experience, Suzanne sees that people learn faster and more thoroughly through failure that through success. When one of her coaching clients fails, she sees it fast-forward them by six months through the coaching process.

Both Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have said that they are successful in large part because they are very comfortable failure.

Melissa works with a lot of maverick leaders. One of them told her that he believes confidence grows from taking action in the face of imperfect information. This is the opposite of the “paralysis of analysis” — and we all have the ability to do that on a regular basis, because we all have times when our information is less-than-perfect, is less than complete, and have the opportunity to act. Having the boldness to act a little sooner, before all the information is in, can be one way to build our own sense of confidence.

It is good to be confident when there is evidence and facts. It’s good when there is a direct experience, and a story that you can share to illustrate your point, conclusion or belief.

For the person starting out in a new area — a person in a new role — go prepare. Collect stories from other people, or dig into your own past to find relevant stories and experiences.

When you know what your customer or audience cares about, touching on those issues helps convey confidence, and it builds confidence in the audience. This is an area where more experienced leaders sometimes fall down — when they lose touch with the concerns of their followers or audience, and don’t talk about those concerns, and thus lose rapport.

And this can happen when the leader has a lot of internal confidence: they fail to check in with the followers of the audience, and they fail to notice the lack of rapport, and then they don’t do the things they need to do to build the confidence and trust of others.

At this point, the leader needs to drop their hubris, be reflective, and figure out why they are confident. It is sad but true that, when results become bad, we often look for the person who was confident, and blame them. A leader who exudes a lot of confidence, and has lost rapport with his followers, and is leading into tough times, can find himself blamed and abandoned.

If I’m the leader, and am wondering if my confidences shared by my followers, how can I tell? One way you as the leader can tell is by checking for communication. Am I getting the bad news directly, or from third parties? If people are open with me, and have trust in me, and are willing to be a little vulnerable and share bad news, that’s a good sign.

Some other basic signs are simple yet powerful — are people smiling and nodding? If so, that’s a sign of confidence by others. If we are laughing and smiling and still working on the problems, that’s good. If everyone is very serious and worried, that’s not good. If I don’t feel that I’m in this with you, then I’m not smiling at you.

A good delivery mechanism for confidence is humor. Humor is also a monitoring mechanism.

So, suppose I have a leader who has the wrong sort of confidence. They have confidence that I believe is baseless. I see people not nodding and not smiling. What else do I look for?

Melissa suggests, ask for feedback. Get blind or anonymous feedback, such as through a professionally delivered, anonymous 360-degree evaluation. She suggests doing it in a no-big-deal, short and simple, 20-minute fashion that cuts to the chase.

Okay, so what if we are all going off the cliff together?

Jim Collins has written a new book on that very subject. Collins’ last book, Good to Great, included two companies whose “great” results turned out to be fraudulent, and Collins addresses that issue of false confidence in his new book.

If a leader’s highly confident and wrong, and has infected everybody with this false confidence, then his 360-degree evaluation will come back rosy. The leader has surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-men, and everybody has confidence. Then what?

Then maybe we fail and we only discover the cliff when we land at the bottom of it. That happens.

The good leader is working against this risk — this “we’re all going off the cliff together” mistake — by seeking out feedback. Get some humility and seek out contrary opinions and doubters.

Your narcissistic leader reveals himself here: a narcissistic leader won’t seek out candid feedback, and will not set up his own anonymous 360-degree evaluation. The narcissist is impatient with the opinions of other people, and does not respect them.

If you are not comfortable seeking out feedback regularly, that’s a warning sign.

In Melissa’s experience, maverick leaders often feel that their opinions are better than other people’s opinions for good reasons — because those maverick leaders really are better at some things. They really are high performers. So a resistance to the opinions of others can have a legitimate, factual basis.

A maverick leader who is not a narcissist, has a very high bar for themselves. They really do want to perform at a high level.

One sign of a leader whose confidence is grounded in reality, is the use of after action reviews, or “autopsies without blame” — where successes and failures are evaluated not in a way that bolsters or harms the ego, rather they are evaluated in a way that educates and informs.

It is a truly confident person who is comfortable with learning lessons and finding out they were wrong.

Melissa has two books in the pipeline, and I hope to interview her again after one or both of them come out.

My second guest was Suzanne Bates of Bates Communication. Suzanne has 20 years of television anchor experience, and has written two books — Speak like a CEO, and Motivate like a CEO.

Before becoming a successful coach, Suzanne had 20 years in major television markets as a news anchor, an industry where confidence is the coin of the realm. I can no more imagine a successful TV news anchor who lacked confidence, that I can imagine a successful business leader who lacked confidence. So Suzanne comes to us with significant personal experience on how to feel and project confidence.

Suzanne believes that there are three kinds of confidence:

  • confidence in oneself
  • confidence based on nothing, bordering on arrogance
  • confidence based on mastery of a skill

There are plenty of self-help books that recommend positive self talk, where you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and tell yourself how great you are. That does not lead to mastery of a skill.

Suzanne frequently works with people who need to project a justifiable confidence, and to do that she builds upon their existing mastery of the scale, and helps them master new skills including public speaking.

What if I don’t have the mastery yet? Suzanne says, you have to invest the time to become a master. Winston Churchill practiced his speeches incessantly. He was always refining and developing the message and the delivery. He knew that, to be a great leader, he needed not only a direction — he needed to communicate that persuasively. Ronald Reagan started out as an actor, so we have not only a strong moral compass, he had enormous practice in delivering a compelling message. That’s what great leaders do — they practice, and practice, and practice.

Is there such a thing as a natural born speaker and leader? In creating her book “speak like a CEO”, Suzanne found that no, that is developed over time.

You need to take the time to develop what it is you’re going to say, as well is how you’re going to say it. And when you take the time to really understand deeply and sincerely what your messages, that brings you confidence.

Indeed, Winston Churchill had a terrible stutter as a child, and managed to overcome that to a degree that most of us can only imagine.

Clearly, Suzanne does not believe in taking shortcuts in building legitimate confidence.

I believe very firmly that the single, key skill of leadership is the ability to speak persuasively — to achieve mastery of the spoken word.

How can I tell if my confidence is justified, or if I have fallen to the dark side?

Successful people often have great persistence and great drive. Where confidence gets in the way, is where a leader stops listening to other people and stops gathering evidence.

Susanna has found in researching her second book, “Motivate like a CEO”, that many successful leaders “go on a journey”. When they enter a new role, they often go on (for example) a 90 day listening tour. They go down to the boiler rooms and up to the rooftops, out to the farthest branch offices, to gather opinions and listen. That gives them the information they need to make decisions and be successful.

This process — not unlike the Hewlett-Packard “management by walking around” — gives one permission to have confidence that is based on reality.

I have a friend and former client who is a director at a hospital, who makes a point of walking from point A to point B by a different path through the hospital building every time. She is constantly looking for opportunities to observe other people at work, observe interactions and processes, and be open to new information. As a result, she is often the first person in the organization at a senior level who sees problems developing — usually at the interfaces between organizational silos.

Suzanne relates that the CEO of Starbucks, back when that was just a local company selling coffee by the bag, went on a trip to Europe and visited 500 cafés. That was where he developed the vision to turn Starbucks into an organization that would sell coffee by the cup — a business concept that was unknown in America at the time.

Similarly, Suzanne talked to the director of a diabetes center in Boston who personally went through every department of that organization. He went to the clinic and had them stick in the belly with needles just like the clients experienced. He went to the warehouse where blood products were stored. He went out of his way to travel all over the organization. And that is a pattern that you will see again and again with successful leaders.

So, one test of good versus bad confidence is whether or not I am open and listening to others. And Suzanne suggests that you check to see if you’re in touch with your own feelings. If you’re not sure, you can do a 360-degree evaluation and make that one of the questions.

The next time you’re in a room with people who are disagreeing with each other, notice your emotions — are you feeling an urgency to get the conversation over with, are you uncomfortable or irritated in the process of listening? If so, you may have the wrong sort of confidence.

A danger sign could be listening to a customer and feeling that you already heard this already.

At this point in the interview, I’m noticing that this concept of self-awareness, and self-reflection, is coming up week after week. There is clearly something going on here that is important to the concept of leadership in general, as well as confidence in particular.

Suzanne agrees that, developing self-awareness is crucial. You have to be able to balance your confidence with humility. If you are self-aware, you will have a foot on both sides of that teeter totter and you will be balancing.

Randall Bell, in his book Strategy 360, makes the same point — that virtues taken too far become vices.

At the end of each day, when I pause and reflect upon my day, and as I develop my self-awareness further, one of the questions I can ask myself is, am I listening effectively to people? Am I noticing myself becoming impatient when listening to other people? Am I open to new information and feedback? It is the answers to these questions that will tell me if my confidence is going too far.

Suzanne suggests that there are several steps here — there’s the physical act of stopping yourself from speaking, so that you can listen. There’s the ability to reflect. And there’s the ability to manage your own emotions — maturity, really.

Suppose I come to the realization that I need more humility. Where would Suzann suggest I start?

We are all works in progress. Suzanne points out that companies find an investment in coaching exceeds 600%. So one could start by hiring a coach. Don’t look at as something remedial — look at it as a way of improving oneself.

A great way to build humility is to set up a confidential 360-degree evaluation, and share that with your coach or have your coach set up. That will help you spend your time with your coach on the right things.

Getting candid feedback — from the people closest to you — is utterly crucial. And it has to be done in a way that allows for candor — it has to be collected by a third party, and it’s best if you introduce the third party with a request for candor.

Suzanne works with a lot of CEOs and others who are at the pinnacles of their careers — and it’s been a long time since they’ve gotten a candid, 360-degree evaluation. They may have had 25 years of uninterrupted success. However, especially if they are stepping into a new role such as the coming CEO, they can still find themselves facing challenges for which their experience has not prepared them.

It is not unusual for a new CEO to have hesitation around leading the people who used to be his peers — a frequent comment is “you don’t need me to tell you your job” — and that is actually a mistake. As the CEO, it is your job to give direction, and to manage the performance of your direct reports, and to be responsible ultimately for their success or failure in achieving results.

Particularly if you rise through the ranks, and becomes CEO, this can be a problem. It can be wise at every career transition point to get candid feedback.

True confidence is reflected in a willingness to be open to new information and feedback.

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