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12 ways to develop leadership confidence

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I was in a talent review meeting recently, and we were discussing the strengths and development needs of a promising young leader. When I asked what the leader’s biggest development need was, the answer was “confidence.”

When faced with a development need, I can usually ad lib a pretty good development plan, but I drew on a blank on this one. Total brain cramp. So I asked the rest of the group, “So, how do you develop confidence?” The only answer they could come up with was “experience.” More specifically, to give the person time to build up a track record of wins.

But that can’t be the only way to develop leadership confidence, right? Sit back and wait? That wouldn’t explain why some young, early-career leaders are oozing with confidence, and other more experienced, successful leaders still project a lack of confidence.

After doing a little research, I came up with the following 12 ways to develop leadership confidence. I’m sure there are way more, but these resonated with me and my own leadership development experience.

Next time, I’ll be able to rattle a few of them off, and I hope anyone wanting to develop leadership self-confidence can use the list to create their own development plan.

1. Learn about leadership. Take a course, read a few books, subscribe to this publication, and study the great leaders. Learn what leaders do and don’t do. Learn the frameworks, the tools, and the skills required to lead. The more you know about subject, including leadership, the more confident you’ll be.

2. Network with other leaders. While it’s good to learn about leadership from courses and reading, putting those good ideas to practice is hard and mistakes will be made. Having a network, or support group of peers is a healthy way to share common, real world challenges. It will give you a feeling of “I’m not the only one who feels this way”.

3. Develop realistic self-awareness. Knowing your leadership strengths will give you confidence, and facing up to your development needs will help you determine what you need to focus on to get better. Feedback will give a leader realistic self-awareness. Leaders that ask for feedback are seen as more confident than those that don’t.

4. Help others be more successful. Leadership confidence isn’t just about building your own track record of wins. The essence of leadership is helping others around you become more successful. Help other gain self-awareness, coach them, and help put them in the best position to be successful.

5. Celebrate wins. When your team or colleagues hit a milestone or does something awesome, let them and everyone else know! This isn’t about tooting your own horn — it’s about getting into the habit of looking for and recognizing the wins of others.

6. Look confident. Pay attention to your physical appearance. Losing weight, getting in shape, a new pair of glasses, new hairstyle, a new suit, or a new pair of shoes can make you feel and look more confident. Watch your posture, make eye contact, smile, and use a firm grip when shaking hands.

7. Learn and practice positive psychology. Optimism and happiness can be learned.

8. Develop your emotional intelligence (EQ). Self-confidence is the mark of an emotionally intelligent leader. EQ isn’t something you are born with, it can be learned and developed.

9. Project confidence. While you may be terrified inside, learn to “fake it till you make it” by appearing that you are confident. Terrified of public speaking? Take a presentation skills course.

10. Ask others for help. Confident leaders know what they know and what they don’t know, and are not afraid to ask for help. They draw on the talents of others without feeling threatened.

11. Stop asking “mother may I” and make a decision. Confident leaders would rather ask for forgiveness than permission and are comfortable making decisions without having 100% certainty.

12. Develop a sense of humor. Well-timed humor will break the tension in a stressful situation and help put the situation in perspective.

Working on all twelve of these at the same time would be overwhelming and impossible, so try picking one or two at a time. Look for incremental improvement and celebrate your success, and before you know it, you’ll feel and act like a more confident leader.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of About.com. He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.