Leading large, complex organisations in times such as ours is no easy thing. However, we could make it a lot easier if we were to heed the advice of leadership research that makes clear what good leaders should be like and need to do. But many myths about leading prevail; surfacing these and providing alternatives is the focus of this article.

If we promoted the kind of leaders that research says we should, we might avoid such disruptions as occurred when in 2023 senior professional services partners divulged confidential Australian government information to which they were privy. The surfacing of their corrupt behaviours has led to government inquiries, will likely result in (welcome) industry restructuring but will also see a huge destruction of value and trust.

This is by no means an isolated instance, but such upheavals could become less frequent and less traumatic in the future if we had the leaders we need running organisations.

How to avoid misconceptions about leadership and better recognise your good leaders

Every coaching session I have is filled with inspiration.  There are so many leaders at all levels of organisations, and at every career and life stage who are committed to doing an outstanding job, to motivating their teams, going above and beyond expectations, and continuing to learn and grow.

They’re committed to improving their skills and to doing an even better job.

I take my hat off to you – our organisations are a better place for your tremendous work and your great intentions.

Sadly, one of the relatively common coaching themes I see is helping such leaders work effectively in toxic circumstances, protecting themselves from power plays. Basically, how to work with people who should never have been promoted into roles where they could wreak such havoc on the lives of others.

Reading Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic article in Forbes reminds me of why this is the case. Despite a lot of good evidence about what it takes to be a good leader, many organisations don’t take any notice of it. He outlines eight misconceptions about leadership. My focus in this article is on his first three.

 

Model showing what leadership misconceptions should be avoided

 

 

Leader selection is meritocratic.

He argues it is not, and with the stories I regularly hear, I can only agree. His argument: 85% of workers disengaged, 65% of workers prepared to take a pay cut to get rid of their boss, and to compound that, only 20% of boards have confidence in their leaders to solve these problems. You’ve heard this before.

It is not easy to pick the right leaders.

He argues it is. Here’s the recipe: start with personality, add intelligence, throw in technical expertise, integrity and emotional intelligence, and you’re nearly there. Make sure there’s no narcissism, psychopathy or Machiavellianism and now you are there. Competent, smart and honest. Who’d have thought?

Leadership depends on the situation.

Not anywhere near as much as we think it does. If you can get people to work together, putting aside their individual interests to achieve a common goal, to achieve something they couldn’t do on their own, you’ve pretty much got it covered. The way individuals do it might vary, but this is the essential work of leadership.

The appallingly unethical behaviour of some Australian professional services ‘leaders’ spotlights how much these misconceptions are alive and kicking.

Yet, I still have the ability and willingness to be inspired by good leadership enacted by good people – competent, smart and honest.  There are plenty of them – let’s recognise them for their amazingness, care about them and enable them to lead others.

There are better ways to lead, we know what they are, and we know who can show them to us.

Another of the myths is that the best leaders are confident. Yes, it is a myth, the fact that it remains so prevalent is a big trigger for me!

Three big reasons why ‘your lack of confidence is holding you back’ should be banned

While well-meaning, the idea that it is someone’s lack of confidence that is the reason they are not being promoted should be treated with incredulity. There are at least three reasons why the idea ought to be banned.

  1. Telling someone to increase their confidence is the wrong thing to say because not only is confidence NOT a requirement for good leadership, in many cases it results in poor leadership. We don’t need more over-confidence in the talent pipeline.
  2. Related to this, just because someone expresses doubts or concerns or does not project a strong certainty about their opinions, does not necessarily mean they are not confident. We may well be misdiagnosing ‘the problem’.
  3. Telling someone to increase their self-confidence doesn’t work. Even if it was a requirement for leadership roles, and helped people to get promoted, such exhortations and simplistic tactics to increase your self-confidence that litter the burgeoning self-help industry don’t work. Let’s not expect people to expend their precious effort doing something that doesn’t work.

This is not to say that a sense of self-confidence is a bad thing. It’s not. Self-confidence is a good thing, when it’s balanced with healthy self-awareness and other more important skills and talents that ARE required for leadership success.

 

Model of good leadership includes emotional intelligence, personality, intelligence, integrity, technical skills and confidence

 

 

Exploding the myth that leaders need to be confident

Confidence is not one of the key personality characteristics required for leadership. And it is worse than irrelevant, too much confidence can end up in choices and actions that are dangerous to others.

Confidence does affect who is chosen for a leadership role, but that of course is because we believe the myth. It is also according to Chamorro-Premuzic a lazy way to select leaders. We need to assess their personality, intelligence, technical abilities and emotional intelligence, but often don’t take the time to do so.

He says that the best type of self-confidence is actually self-awareness, the ability to be aware of both your talents and your limitations. It is so noteworthy in senior leaders, he claims, because it is so rarely seen.

Self-confidence without awareness of limitations means that you take insufficient notice of flaws and inabilities. Not knowing them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We need to get much better at being able to spot such flaws and gaps during hiring and promotion processes. Rather than being reassured by certainty and confidence we should be concerned about it, and probe further.

Not knowing their limitations puts others at risk of leaders’ blindspots and incompetence and there are plenty of examples of failed projects and corporate disasters that illustrate this.

If this is a myth, why do we keep choosing the wrong people for leadership roles?

Our preoccupation with confidence engrains leadership stereotypes that mean that we choose the wrong people for leadership roles. Continuing to believe and promote the idea that confidence is something leaders needs tells people who don’t express such confidence that the problem is inside them, rather than with the system.

This is a particular problem for women and under-represented groups who continue to face significant challenges in climbing the leadership ladder. They just need to be confident, then all will miraculously change?

We’ve tried that one, and not only doesn’t it work, it backfires. When women express their confidence, they are often seen as aggressive, so believing that confidence is necessary for leadership traps women out of leadership roles. Women fall into the ‘damned if you do, doomed if you don’t’ trap that is incredibly difficult to get out of. Telling women to be more confident in most cases just digs a deeper hole.  (You can read more about this dilemma in this article.)

We need instead to focus on the ‘confidence climate’. Is it possible for women to feel confident in your work environment? Change the environment, and you start to change confidence levels.

Just to complicate things, high self-confidence is in fact good for you. I have no problem whatsoever with the concept of confidence, it’s how we use it that matters!

If self-confidence is good for you why don’t we want leaders who have it?

The answer to this question is that we do. But to avoid the problems outlined above we need to revisit the concept of confidence, because how we define it matters as much as how we use it.

High self-esteem improves social relationships, increases success at school and work, improves mental and physical health outcomes, no matter your age, race, ethnicity or gender according to a recent meta-analysis by Ulrich Orth and Richard W. Robins. It’s an advantage to anyone, whatever their situation.

At work, we want high self-esteem, a confidence in self and we want that to be accompanied by a good dose of self-awareness. That makes it possible to say what you don’t know as well as what you do know, to admit to your mistakes as well as your successes, and to be prepared to learn from others just as much as to help others learn from you.

The research is very clear that high self-esteem and narcissism are not the same thing, yet these two concepts can get pretty confused, especially when we are looking at senior leadership roles, and high profile role models of ‘successful leaders’. High self-esteem shows no sign of grandiosity, self-centredness, arrogance or entitlement which are the hallmarks of narcissism, and which we often see in those role models.  Narcissism has a clear negative effect on relationships once people get to know the person, is related to more anti-social behaviour and it increases stressful events for the people around the narcissist.

I’ve written more about the toxicity of narcissistic leaders here.

People with lower self-confidence in the workplace tend to fall into those groups where there are social inequalities, such as women.

While low self-esteem and imposter phenomenon are not the same thing, they do operate similarly in terms of contextual factors; impostor feelings originate from social inequalities and the workplace structures that maintain them. Where beliefs about capability, ambition and promotability are gendered, women are inherently disadvantaged and exhorting them to increase their self-confidence remains ubiquitous. There’s still! a corner of the self-help market focused on increasing women’s self-confidence – leaning in, standing up for yourself, being unapologetic – it’s based on faulty premises and more likely to do harm than good.

Take the systemic biases away and as Eddie Brummelman and Kelly Ziemer write you change the problem completely:

Women don’t experience more impostor feelings than men in environments that value each individual’s potential, where people believe that everyone can become highly successful with the right amount of effort and dedication.

Again, we need to carefully examine the workplace context to understand its impact on particular groups to change the factors that get in the way of self-confidence and feeling accepted and credible.

Let’s turn to my third proposition now. Increasing self-confidence does have benefits, so for people low in self-esteem, why wouldn’t you want to help them to experience those wonderful benefits that come with higher levels? No reason why not, if the methods used are effective.

Why telling women to be more confident is a tactic doomed to fail

We’ve seen how the systemic framing of confidence is problematic, and so too is the messaging to individuals about how to solve the problem.

According to Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad,

Confidence messages ‘disproportionately address women [and] are frequently mobilised as an explanatory framework wherever there is talk of gender inequality.

Messages to men about increasing confidence are usually focused on specific skills or behaviours, and tend to be short-term, whereas for women they tend to focus on re-invention and women’s own inner obstacles that hold them back.

In a biased work environment where responsibility is placed on women to close the confidence gap they are being asked to do something that is outside of their control – it is impossible to do.

The framing doesn’t help, and neither does it help that two of the standard techniques – high levels of praise and positive self-talk – that are recommended for increasing self-confidence actually make things worse. Self-confidence is not, as some authors (e.g. Kay and Shipman in ‘Confidence Code’) claim ‘straightforward to acquire’.

How these tactics backfire (from Brummelman and Zeimer):

  • Provide lots of positive praise – the more lavish the praise, the more likely it is to increase avoidance and caution in order to avoid failure. It seems to set expectations that are just too high to be seen as attainable.
  • Engage in positive self-talk – too much emphasis on positive self-talk seems to make people with low self-esteem feel worse about themselves, increase feelings of anxiety, tension, and increase physical sensations of trembling and breathlessness. Even when the praise is from significant others it can increase the likelihood that such praise will be dismissed.

I hardly need to say this again, but this is not a problem for which a mindset change will work.

As Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington argues, mindsets are not free-floating.

They are neither optional strategies that everyone can freely adopt nor value-neutral ways of enhancing wellbeing. Instead, they are embedded in life conditions that have material, social and ideological dimensions.

Locus of control, self-regulation, approach orientation and being trusted and agreeable are the elements of a mindset that helps people flourish. In her article Jennifer is talking about beliefs about how people might lift themselves out of poverty. But shifting a mindset is extraordinarily difficult to do when the person is dealing with threats in their social context, such as those experiencing poverty do, and some women in leadership roles experience. Being confident becomes an abstraction that fails to address the underlying issues. The mindset of confidence just is not freely accessible and available to women in certain work contexts.

Five tactics to address systemic patterns of confidence and to provide a climate for the leadership we need

For obvious reasons, if self-confidence is low, we likely want to increase it, to experience its valuable benefits. But not everything is equal, and ‘access’ to high self-confidence and the means to increase it are not straightforward.

Systemically, the underlying issue is that we don’t need anywhere near us much confidence as we think we do, and it needs the balance of self-awareness to actually be valuable in leadership. At the individual level, the most common practices to increase it may decrease it.

If you want to change that, try these tactics instead:

  • Close gaps in systemic issues such as gendered definitions of success, talent and capability
  • When someone experiences self-doubt, identify what it is about the work context that might contribute to the doubt, name it and change it
  • Similarly, when someone expresses over-confidence encourage them to be less certain, to entertain reasonable doubt, and help them to see alternative ways to view the situation
  • Foster a safe learning environment; focus on high levels of psychological safety for all team members, encourage shared learning and call out instances of uncertainty and doubt for their value to learning and innovation, systematically review projects and teamwork to identify ways to improve
  • Help your organisation to reframe the whole talent discussion and to focus on the leadership capabilities that research shows are effective.

Unless and until we do these things we perpetuate the over-promotion of too-confident individuals, have role models who do not display the right behaviours, foster toxic work environments and prevent those who have real talent and are humble from taking their rightful places at the top of our organisations.

Time to rethink our leadership myths so that we get the leaders we need.

For coaching support for yourself or other good leaders, shoot me an email, I can help!

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