Humility

Responding to a claim that Clement Attlee was “a very modest man,” Churchill is supposed to have said that he had “much to be modest about”*. He was wrong, of course. Attlee did not. Churchill and his contemporaries seemed unable to distinguish between bluster and confidence. Imagine leading the Labour Party for twenty years from 1935 to 1955 (oh, and the country for some of them), when everyone assumed you were a temporary caretaker, without possessing a certain degree of self-belief.

I hear a lot about humble leadership, and I don’t really believe it. By all means, avoid bluster and vainglory, avoid the strutting displays of power that mask only a deep insecurity. But humility? You are in a position of substantial authority; please tell me you think you are worthy of it, at least secretly?

Leaders have to make difficult decisions, endure conflict, navigate uncertainty and instil confidence in others. Let’s be honest: it takes a certain arrogance to think you should be the person to do that.

Indeed, there are many flaws that come from a lack of confidence. The need to claim or steal credit, for example, or to cut short the tall poppies. The inability to handle constructive challenges. The need for constant affirmation. Bullying, indecision, panic, timidity, confusion. Many of these traits stem from too little rather than too much confidence. Genuine healthy confidence is the foundation of calm, generous, honest and transparent leadership.

David McClelland distinguished between personalised and socialised power. In the first, you seek power for personal gain and status. It is about the corner office and the big car, the deference and the attention. In the latter, you seek power to get something done. It is about service to a greater cause. It does not mean that the servant leader is meek or humble. All leaders seek to bend the world to their will. The key question is ‘why?’

The difficulty with this otherwise helpful distinction is that the two motives can lead to similar behaviours. All leaders need to build and conserve their authority. All leaders need to get some satisfaction from the exercise of power in order to pay attention to the right things. If they don’t, their tenure may be brief. If you’re in this game, I think it is more honest to admit that to yourself and ask instead if you are doing it for the right reasons.

So, I’m fine with bold, confident, assured leaders, if that drive is in service to a worthy cause. Of course there will be moments of doubt and confusion, we’re not looking for super heroes.

There are toxic forms of confidence however.

I don’t trust leaders who are certain they are right, either intellectually or morally. They need the ability to make a firm decision with the facts that they have (which are never sufficient), while entertaining the real possibility that they are wrong. They need to recognise that others have sources of wisdom and principle.

Optimism is dangerous when it leads to denial. You have to believe you can make it but be prepared to face the harshest reality squarely. You can hold on to a 5% chance of success, by all means, but admit it’s 5%. In particular, know that disaster will strike at some point; keep something in reserve.

Confidence that becomes entitlement will alienate. Recognise your good fortune. Yes, your role makes you important; it’s enough that you know that. You don’t need it echoing through every interaction. It won’t be solely your own talents that got you where you are. I believe in an earned hierarchy of perspective and accountability; I don’t believe it makes some people better than others. I would certainly minimise the trappings of status: the opportunity, and the pay, are reward enough. I’m looking for quiet confidence.

Finally, there is confidence born of inexperience… Well, actually I have some time for that. I love it when people achieve great things because they didn’t realise they were supposed to be impossible.

How do you develop your confidence as a leader? Find your cause. Serve it. Use it when balancing the difficult decisions. Know that you are expected to make the best possible decisions, not to make perfect decisions. Stop comparing yourself with others. This article on imposter syndrome goes into greater depth on the topic.

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