Teetering leadership: Being confident but not overconfident

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post by Bill Treasurer is an excerpt from "The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance," by Treasurer and Capt. John Havlik, retired Navy SEAL.

When it comes to leadership, one important consideration is the kind of leader people willingly follow. Authentic leader confidence is important to followers. We want our leaders to have a backbone, genuine convictions and a strong sense of self. We want to be led by leaders who are comfortable with who they are, and not squirrely in their skin.

We want leaders who can make tough decisions without waffling. Yes, we want our leaders to be confident. But we don’t want them to be overconfident. There are few turnoffs as damaging to group loyalty as a leader’s arrogance. When confidence slips over into conceit (hubris), the focus of leadership shifts from service to self-interest. Most followers will withhold loyalty from the leader they think is strictly out for his own best interests.

It is the lack of humility and genuine caring that followers find so repulsive and dangerous in arrogant leaders. Hubris causes a leader to trust and value his own judgment above all others, closing himself off from valuable feedback that could otherwise make for better decisions.

Hubris is what makes a leader demand loyalty, not because it’s deserved but because it forces everyone to keep the leader at the forefront of their attention. Hubris causes a leader to become overconfident in the face of risk, presuming that his superior judgment will stack the odds in his favor. When a leader lacks humility, followers get anxious because they bear the full brunt of whatever poor decisions or miscalculated risks the arrogant leader takes. Leadership overconfidence causes followers to lose confidence in the leader.

Arrogance and humility

Followers value the presence of humility because it serves as an important ego-mitigating function. People will afford a leader a lot of power as long as they know that power is tethered to humility. People want to know that no matter how much success you’ve achieved, no matter how much influence and authority you have, you haven’t forgotten your roots. They want to know that you wear right-sized britches and that you put them on the same way they do. But if a leader’s ego becomes inflated and untethered from the grounding influence of humility, followers will unfollow the leader fast.

Plenty of people think of themselves as humble, but don’t behave that way. Arrogance shows itself in your behaviors. So does humility. Here are some ways of actually behaving with humility.

  • Ask questions. Leaders aren’t expected to know everything about everyone’s job. Otherwise, what would you need them for? But leaders are expected to be knowledgeable and informed. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that might reveal your ignorance about a subject. Asking questions is the best way to show that you don’t have all the answers, which others will appreciate.
  • Show your warts. Don’t pretend to be perfect, because you’re not. People want to be led by leaders who are seasoned and scarred, because that’s how wisdom is gained. Young professionals, especially, need to know about the mistakes you’ve made and the “do-overs” you wish you could have. It helps them feel less awkward knowing that even leaders screw up.
  • Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. The point isn’t to outshine your direct reports. It’s to help bring out the best in them in the service of the mission. Too many leaders default to hiring the least offensive job candidate. Instead, hire people who will lift everyone’s game, including your own. Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
  • Spend time with people you outrank. Drawing on his SEAL days, retired Capt. John Havlik says, “You’ve got to walk the deck plates.” The folks closest to the work need to know you’re not out of touch with the realities and challenges of the work. Not only will they appreciate the access to you, they’ll give you practical insights and ideas that will strengthen your leadership influence -- and make you smarter.
  • Open yourself up to feedback. How will you ever know if you’re a good leader if you don’t get feedback from the people you’re leading? If your organization has a 360-degree feedback process, ask to go through it. If not, send an email to your boss, a few peers, and all your direct reports asking them three things:
    1. What do they see as your leadership strengths?
    2. What suggestions do they have for improving your leadership?
    3. What resources can they recommend to leverage your strengths and help improve your leadership?

(Leadership caution: When you ask for honest feedback, be ready for both the good and the bad! Don’t be the hubristic leader who doesn’t accept negative feedback, especially when you’re the person who asked for it. Be like judges in an Olympic diving competition: Throw out the high and low scores and take the average of the rest.)

  • Say “thank you” sincerely and often: It’s arrogant to not acknowledge the good work of those who are actively contributing to your success. If you’re one of those leaders who thinks, “Why should I thank them for what they’re getting paid to do?” then you are exactly the person who needs to say “thank you” more often!

 

Bill Treasurer is founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. He is a sought-after speaker and the author of five books, including his most recent, co-authored with Capt. John Havlik, retired Navy SEAL, "The Leadership Killer: Reclaiming Humility in an Age of Arrogance." Learn more at LeadershipKiller.com.

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