As far as the American public was concerned, the 1970 Apollo 13 mission was just another routine space flight. That was until we heard the words, ‘Houston, we have a problem’ (well, in the movie anyway).
The movie highlighted just how infectious Gene Kranz’s confidence was. ‘We’ve never lost an American in space and we sure as hell ain’t gonna lose one on my watch,’ he tells his assembled flight team. ‘Failure is not an option!’
Would this have been so inspiring (and effective) if Kranz wasn’t able to lead with confidence? If he wasn’t able to inspire his team to believe that they could make the impossible happen?
In today’s ever-changing business landscape, we desperately need, and need to be, leaders like Gene Kranz – leaders who can … well … lead. Exercising leadership like this is so much more than having the competence to get the job done. You must have the confidence to make an impact beyond your wildest dreams.
Confidence, not competence
Leadership is seldom easy. Decisions must be made under time pressure and with many shades of grey. You have to inspire your team through a world of complexity and uncertainty, unite them, and give them drive and great purpose. Without confidence, how long do you think you will last? This is especially the case in today’s disruptive climate.
Confidence separates average leaders from great leaders. If you’re competent in your job, you can tick all the boxes and get the job done. You have the ability required for your role, the right level of skills, the right level of knowledge and the right capacity. However, being competent in your job is no longer enough if you are striving to be a great leader.
You must be able to cultivate a culture of confidence in your team and everyone around you so they too believe they can do whatever it is you want them to do. That means you must first have confidence in yourself and your leadership ability.
Cultivating confidence with others starts from the minute we walk into a room, the minute we open our mouths and speak. Often those judgments are made in less than a minute and within seconds. (In fact, a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov revealed forming a first impression of a stranger takes a mere tenth of a second.)
If based on how they show up, we believe a leader to be confident, we will assume that they are competent. If we get any sense of a lack of confidence, however, we will assume a lack of competence. This may not be fair, but that’s what judgement is all about!
These judgements also have to do with people’s assumptions about what a leader should look like. If you show up and seem anxious and insecure, or seem to have some self-doubt, you won’t be perceived as a leader because people will think you are a liability, regardless of your actual level of competence and skill to do the job.
Setting direction, executing strategy and creating an engaging environment for employees to bring their best all takes confidence. So you must first believe and have confidence in your own ability to weather the storms, to perform well under pressure, to learn from mistakes and bounce back, to create and innovate, and to keep raising the bar and driving higher levels of performance.
You can do this in 4 key areas to help you maximise your leadership potential.
1. Show up as the real you
You believe you can draw on what you are great at. You believe what you’re good at is important, and that it’s aligned with how you are working. You believe that you are valuable and valued.
Showing up as truly confident over a sustained period of time is something that needs to be built from the inside out. ‘Faking it until you make it’ only gets you so far and for so long. Trying to pretend you have the confidence needed to get the job done can be exhausting.
2. Stand up for yourself
At work, especially in leadership, you need to speak up when no-one else will and lead change. You need to be visible, make unpopular decisions and go slow in order to go fast. You don’t need to be the Dalai Lama, but you do need to stand up for what you deem right, fair and important.
As Steve Jobs once said, ‘Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me.’ He was clear about what he stood for and why, and you need to be too.
3. Speak up and have a voice
Many of us also back away from speaking up to avoid conflict. We see conflict as bad, rather than being able to reframe it as healthy debate. As a result, we keep our opinions to ourselves – thinking that if we just keep doing our job and delivering the outcomes, we will get ahead.
Yet we must be willing to speak up, even when it is hard or unpopular or you feel like it will cause conflict. Like Martin Luther King Jr put it, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter’. So use your voice!
4. Step up your performance
You need to have the confidence and skills, and the ability to take on an element of risk, no matter what role or industry you work in. You need to do things differently tomorrow from how you are today. You need to take yourself out of your comfort zone – and be confident enough to do this.
If you’ve got your ‘head down and bum up’ all day long, knocking off your to-do list, how will you be able to assess what you need to do to ensure the work makes real progress? Continue to challenge yourself and ask, ‘If what got me here won’t get me there, what do I need to be doing now to step up?’
When you do this, when you do this in line with all the other confidence skills then you supercharge your confidence and stand out as a leader.
About the Author
Michelle Sales is a highly sought-after speaker, trainer, facilitator and coach who helps senior leaders and their teams learn to show up as the best version of themselves, to build their confidence and influence with others, and to maximise their leadership and performance. She is the author of the book ‘The Power of Real Confidence’ published by Major Street in 2018.