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Leading with confidence

What happens when you have the title but not the confidence?
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How to lead with confidence when you don’t feel it

Being a great leader is one of the hardest challenges to achieve in the world. Only a special few find that leadership comes naturally. Everyone else has to do the work and the learning before they hit their stride. So, if you are new to your leadership role or your confidence has spiralled down for some reason, buckle up and settle in for the ride.

It’s important to think of your career in leadership as a marathon, rather than a sprint. You are going to need to take a long-term approach and know you won’t get it all right up front. Sometimes, when we think of leadership, we think of people with soft skills who are warm, smart and attract others. Leadership is much more than that. Leaders have the ability to think strategically, build trust quickly, share a vision, and do it all in a way that makes others want to stand beside them. If just reading that makes your heart beat a bit faster, keep in mind that most of the best leaders in the world have made mistakes, messed up and disappointed people at some point. Bill Gates will no doubt admit he dropped the ball when it came to developing Microsoft’s answer to iTunes (Zune, anyone?). And who could forget New Coke? (Coca-Cola’s former CEO, Roberto Goizueta, probably wanted to.) So, what do we do when our commitment to leadership and people is high, but our confidence is low?

You can start by doing a review of your leadership style as it is now. This can sound like work, because it is! That’s what leaders do. They self-assess, reflect and adapt so that they are constantly evolving. Consider what strengths you bring to the room. It’s so important to be clear about where you add value. Reflect on the feedback you have been given on your performance as a leader and review any changes you have implemented. It is useful to spend time clarifying what you want to be known for in five years’ time. What will you stand for? Also, identify the times when you feel most confident and at your best. I always ask coaching clients to make a specific list of attributes and behaviours that they value in other leaders. As a final step in your review, write down who you ‘don’t’ want to be.

Build your confidence in three easy steps

Investing in you is the most important investment you will ever make. You will increase your confidence by having a ‘leadership plan’ for your development. You will set goals for learning opportunities and consult experts who will add to your leadership toolbox. Make building your confidence a priority by having a focused approach. These three principles will get you started and keep the momentum going:

  1. Find your tribe: Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed as a leader, who will challenge you to be more and who understand your true potential. Your tribe extends beyond friends and family. They are people who will challenge you and celebrate you. Identify those in your world whom you trust and will tell you the truth about how your leadership style is impacting others. Your tribe should include a mentor who can guide you and a coach who can hold you accountable to your leadership goals. (There are some great tips for finding the ‘right’ people to assemble in your dream team here.) You should also be connected with a leader outside of your industry who can provide a different perspective – and make sure you have someone in your tribe who can be your number one fan!
  2. Leadership learning edge: It is true, the greatest learning happens during periods of discomfort; in fact, research tells us that up to 70 per cent of people experience positive psychological growth from difficult times, such as a deeper sense of self and purpose. To know what you are really capable of, you have to test out your resilience and capabilities as a leader. Taking risks and then succeeding will build your confidence in you! You are an ever-evolving complex human with so many things to learn, and that is where your potential as a truly inspiring leader sits. Intentionally look for new experiences and meet people out of your current network. When we aren’t feeling confident, the natural response is to be head down and bum up and to fly under the radar. Leaders don’t have the luxury to do that. Leaders have to be prepared to fail and push themselves. Find your learning edge by being involved in projects, conversations and opportunities where you will learn and evolve in an accelerated way. This might take time now, but will serve your confidence later.
  3. Be resolute, committed and courageous: The reality is there’s really only one you on this planet. No single other person looks the same as you, has your beliefs or experiences. One of the greatest leadership challenges of all is to retain your authenticity and courage while leading according to your own values. You need to learn as much as you can from others, but it’s what you know and trust about yourself that will show itself the most. It’s easy to be a good leader when things are easy. It’s how you lead others when it’s hard, and you don’t know what to do, that counts the most. So, put your big girl/boy pants on and make a plan, commit to it and show everyone who you are. As a success coach, I’ve never met anyone who was really an overnight success. Strong leadership takes work. Enjoy the ride.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of confidence-building inspiration than that offered by research professor and bestselling author Brené Brown. There’s a reason why her speech on the power of vulnerability ranks as one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. Her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are is similarly motivational, reminding us that success hinges on our propensity to show up, try and, if needs be, fail. As she says, sometimes it’s the bravest and most important thing you can do.

- Lisa Stephenson
Founding Director, The Coach Place Global