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The one trait successful leaders share

5 min read


More and more studies show that confidence is a critical trait in leaders, a quality that draws people in and adds weight to everything you say. It’s not only important to be right, you must also be confident. Yet sometimes it seems like confidence is either something you have, or something you don’t.

Not so. Confidence is a trait that can be developed.

“… if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” — Mahatma Gandhi

So what can you do, then, short of hoping that a gust of self-assurance will just come along and fill your sails? You can practice. Like any other skill, you can exercise your confidence muscles and build skill. You don’t need to worry about big leaps — especially not to start — but practice self-awareness, and work at making small but significant changes to your behavior. Try these techniques to genuinely build your confidence and increase your management potential:

1. Drop your doubt and take some risks. Confident people choose to try things even when they’re not 100% certain they’ll succeed. Often, they’re no more or less capable of succeeding than those who don’t, but they get ahead far more often just based on the fact that they’re willing to give it a go, or to bring a new idea to the table. Think about it, but don’t think too hard: just give it a shot and surprise yourself with the positive results.

2. Focus on your strength and leverage it. While it may seem like you should concentrate on the areas you need to improve, what really builds your confidence — and gets you noticed — is playing to your strengths.

Take time on your own, with a mentor, or with an executive coach, to list your strengths and consider how you can best assert yourself — what you do well and what you like doing. Consider opportunities for you to hone those skills outside of work as well, giving you the leg up in the office. Try stepping up to take on key roles within your clubs and organizations, or leveraging other volunteer opportunities where your strengths can be both exercised and appreciated.

3. Be aware of the signals you give. Whether you’re in a small staff meeting or presenting to top executives, take notice of the verbal and non-verbal cues you’re giving to those around you. Observe the signals sent by those you admire, or who seem to make their point well. Use these tried and true techniques to enhance your air of confidence:

Body Language Speaking Style Audience Engagement
Relaxed Shoulders Lower Register or Pitch Frequent Eye Contact
Talk with Your Hands Speak Early Warm Smile
Confident But Comfortable Pose Speak Often Inviting Questions
Minimize Fidgeting Speak Calmly Deep Listening

4. Don’t deflect compliments — whether it’s a big contract just signed or a difficult project completed on time, when given credit, take it. Resist the urge to attribute luck, circumstances or other people for all the success. If your team helped, say so, but warmly, genuinely and gracefully accept praise when you’ve done well. Make sure to take those compliments to heart, and remember them. Similarly, don’t assume more than your share of blame when something goes wrong. Don’t shoulder more than you’re due.

5. Stop trying to be perfect. Fixating on any one aspect of a work or life and attempting to achieve perfection results in hours of wasted time and energy, to little effect. Perfection is rarely realistic. Confidence isn’t about knowing what you’ve done is flawless, but rather knowing that what you’ve done is good. Look positively on what you’ve accomplished instead of picking apart the details and focusing on the mistakes. Remember to look at the big picture, and realize that what you’ve done is worth feeling good about.

Should you ever “fake it ’til you make it” and hope people don’t notice? Absolutely not. You can’t fake confidence, but you can certainly exercise your confidence muscles, build your skills and give yourself the tools to be a more confident leader.

Tell me about the steps you’ve taken to practice and build your own confidence in the comments below.

Joel Garfinkle is available for speaking and training. He is recognized as one of the top 50 coaches in the U.S., having worked with many of the world’s leading companies, including Oracle, Google, Amazon, Deloitte, The Ritz-Carlton, Gap and Starbucks. He is the author of 300 articles on leadership and nine books, including “Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level.” More than 10,000 people subscribe to his Fulfillment@Work newsletter. If you sign up, you’ll receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!” His website has over 200 free articles on leadership, work issues and career advancement.

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