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How do great leaders get great confidence?

4 min read


Why would anyone follow a leader with no confidence? They wouldn’t.

Too many aspiring leaders leave the development of this critical skill to chance when, in fact, confidence is one of the easiest leadership skills to build all by yourself. You don’t need anyone else’s permission or consent to get started. Great leaders figure this out along the way, so why not get a leg up on the intuitive process they use?

It starts by understanding what confidence really is. It’s not the secure knowledge you’ll never goof up. Confidence is knowing “pretty much” what to expect and knowing how to handle it. You can’t build confidence without learning what happens in certain situations, and practicing responses until you find out what works and what doesn’t. You can’t think your way into confidence either, you have to act.

Here’s a simple recipe for confidence building, and it works for the CEO as well as for the entry-level post-grad:

  1. Identify an area you don’t feel confident in. This can be a skill (like communicating unhappy news in ways that spur innovation) or an area of substantive knowledge or capability (like knowing the ins-and-outs of your industry’s seasonal market dynamics).

  2. Identify the edge of your comfort zone. Just fill in these blanks: I feel confident that I know/can do ____ but I’m not confident I know/can do ____.

  3. Identify something you can do within the next week to act just outside your comfort zone. Can you call on an expert to review what you think you know? Can you go to a meeting and make a contribution “out of the zone”? Can you take someone specific to lunch and be “out of the zone” in your conversation? Can you open your mouth and say something you wouldn’t have said before to the next person you meet? Commit to doing it and then do it.

  4. Notice what really happens. This is the hard part. Don’t just notice what confirms that you’re outside your comfort zone. You knew you’d find that kind of feedback when you stepped over the line. Pay attention to it and learn from it, but most importantly notice the other stuff — the feedback that shows you what you do know and what you’re doing right. That’s what you want to build on and do more of in the future. And don’t worry about looking stupid. Just learn as you go and you’ll never look stupid; people appreciate your transparency and honesty — especially if you’re the boss!

  5. Plot to do it again. Go from the scary place outside your comfort zone to your happy place back inside the zone and have a cup of coffee or a jog on the treadmill. Relax and noodle on what really happened, focusing on what went right. Reflect also on what went wrong and let go of any emotional residue from it (remember, you asked for it). If anything at all went right (and it almost always does), you just moved the line of your comfort zone a little bit farther out.

  6. Repeat. Over and over, focusing on the small things. Once you get this process down on the small things, the big things become a whole lot easier.

No matter how high up the career ladder we get, we all have more outside our comfort zone than within it. Develop the habit of expanding your zone, and you’re on the path to becoming a confident leader.

I’m offering a special confidence-building, complimentary webinar for women — “Communicating With Confidence to Build Credibility.” Register here.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business culture by design that integrates lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.