Is a lack of confidence limiting your leadership impact?


Where is your current confidence level at? Do you recognise certain triggers that can build you up, or cut you down in an instant?

A friend of mine was recently promoted to a leadership role within the special unit in a hospital.  A few weeks ago one of her nursing team members ran into her office, saying, “Dr. Thomas is yelling at Vanessa (a nurse) in front of a patient!”  With a pit of anxiety in her stomach, my friend hurried to the patient’s room, sized up the situation, grabbed Vanessa’s arm and drew her out of the room saying, “I am sorry, Dr. Thomas, but I need to speak with Vanessa in my office immediately.”  Astounded, the doctor followed. 

Once they were in her office with the door closed, the doctor turned on my friend saying angrily, “How dare you interfere with patient care?!”  My friend replied, “I’m sorry for interrupting Doctor Thomas, but, in future, if you feel it’s necessary to shout at Vanessa, I’d be happy to vacate my office so you can do so in private.  Your patient is dependent on Vanessa and my team and you may have just damaged his confidence in her and them, which is not in your patient’s best interests.”  He glared, turned on his heel and left.

My friend was shaking! She sat down before her knees could cave in and took a deep breath. 

What would you have done?

Would you have had the confidence to stand up to someone with more authority and power?

Eight decades of formal leadership research has demonstrated that when it comes to confidence leaders are both born and made.

The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who wrote about leadership in his troubled times, observed that confidence is a person’s greatest friend. Modern leadership researchers generally agree; research suggests there is a statistically significant improvement in leadership effectiveness as leaders increase in confidence.

Leaders with higher self-confidence were rated significantly more positively by their teams, peers and bosses on the following six leadership traits.

 *  Being a Champion for projects or programs. They did an excellent job of marketing what they did and persuading others to accept a new position or viewpoint.

 *  Having the Courage to Change. They were quick to spot problems and recognised the need to change early.

 *  More Energy and Enthusiasm within themselves and for others.

 *  Willing to Challenge standard approaches and encourages others to find new, more innovative ways to do work.

 *  Inspiring others by pulling them towards projects and work that was motivating.

 *  Representing the Group to other groups, to senior leadership and customers.


But Can You Have Too Much Of A Good Thing?

It seems that in the confidence stakes, yes, you sometimes can.

Research has also shown that there is a tipping point for leader confidence, after which it can become damaging through arrogance and a resistance to feedback and personal change. This can lead to relationships being damaged and trust being destroyed as people feel ignored or used. It also shows a lack of integrity or honesty when commitments are not being honoured.

There are many aspects of leadership where more is definitely better – honesty and integrity for example, however as figure 1. below shows, there is a tipping point where confidence becomes ‘too-much-of-a-good-thing’ and begins to negatively impact leader’s effectiveness.

Where Are You On The Leader Effectiveness vs Leader Confidence Graph?







A Lack of Confidence Is More Common In Today’s Business Environment

So it seems that pushing confidence too far can make it become a weakness. However, for most of us the challenge is not overconfidence, but a lack thereof.

This is a problem because lack of self-confidence has more of a negative impact than high self-confidence has a positive effect.

In other words, low-confidence in a leader pulls overall leadership effectiveness down more than high-confidence pushes it up.

How to Develop and Maintain Self-Confidence

Much of our confidence comes from the internal dialogue. We can increase our self-confidence through learning, practicing and interpreting our experiences in realistic and positive ways.

Conscious use of following strategies and techniques can help:

1.  Oh no, that wasn’t me… – Performance Attribution

How we interpret information about our past performances has the strongest and most lasting effect on our self-confidence – good or bad. When we assess our performance we take into account how difficult the task was, how much help we got from others and how much effort we put in ourselves.

If we continually explain away good performance through other people’s efforts, we diminish confidence. It is only those performances that we credit ourselves for that contribute to our memories and build a robust sense of self-confidence.

2.  Being aware of your body and emotions

Your body and feelings will change depending on your level of confidence. Noticing the emotions triggered by thinking about or engaging in a task can help you understand if your confidence is low or high, and then manage it appropriately, for example, through breathing exercises. We tend to interpret our physical symptoms – such as high energy, tiredness or pain – as indicators of our competence.  Managing your emotions and physical output can help improve confidence in different settings and for various tasks.

3.  Heeding Our Cheerleaders

Other people play a crucial role in helping us build self-confidence (or not) by setting expectations, evaluating our performances and helping us understand the reasons for our successes and failures, as well as supporting us emotionally by celebrating wins and supporting us through losses.

To be effective, their input and feedback must be believable and explicitly credit our underlying ability to do the task.  It has most influence coming from people who we perceive to have expertise and prestige, as well as being credible and trustworthy, and it plays an important part in our self-talk and internal confidence dialogues.  Executive coaching can be very effective for this.

4.  Comparing Ourselves to Others

The less experience we have had in doing something, the more we rely on social comparison to work out expectations of our own performance. We do this by observing people who we believe are like us in personal characteristics and general experience.  Seeing them achieve their goals through effort and persistence can be a powerful source of aspiration and motivation – the “If she can do it, so can I” factor. This can help build confidence sufficiently to launch us into a task and when our self-confidence is low, we can also benefit from examples of others’ courage, using it to strengthen and guide us.

5.  Reducing Our Performance Anxiety

Anxiety, or stress, negatively influences our self-beliefs about our ability to cope, so managing anxiety is an important way to increase self-confidence in anxiety-prone situations such as confronting an under-performing team member or public speaking.  Many experienced leaders mitigate anxiety by rehearsing the event in their imagination, generating mental imagery of a successful performance that builds confidence over time as neural pathways are formed in the brain and the body becomes less reactive.

6.  Practising Positive Self-Leadership

The techniques described above are helpful only if we use the information gained from them to positively influence ourselves.  We need to convince ourselves that we either have or can acquire the skills needed to do the target task.  If we believe it requires an ability that we do not possess -such as boldness where we are shy, high intelligence where we are average, or a large accumulation of knowledge, we will never persuade ourselves that it is doable.

Constructive self-talk both before and after doing a task is important.  A well-constructed series of affirmations and ego boosts can undercut our inner critic, reduce our anxiety and help us learn to trust our ability to achieve success. 

Self-talk is most effective when we address ourselves by our given names in our internal thoughts and directives.  Avoiding the pronouns, “I” and “me,” helps distance us emotionally so that we can focus on the task, i.e. working through our thoughts and feelings to rationally compare the task needs with our known aptitudes and skills.  And afterwards, whether we succeeded or failed, it helps us construct a confidence-building narrative about further learning and accumulated experience.

What Could This Look Like in Real Life?  4 Ways to Boardroom Confidence

Let’s imagine you’re preparing to chair the Senior Leadership Team meeting for the first time. Here are some steps you can follow to create confidence in yourself as you approach the task:

  1. Sit back and take three deep breaths to relax. Remember that you have chaired meetings before so you have done something similar – you do not need to be anxious.


  2. Go through the meeting opening process and the agenda in your mind to check that you have everything you need. Do you have all the information? Will you be asked difficult questions that you need to prepare for? Are there are points you need more clarification on or help from others? Assemble the details that you need.  Tell yourself ‘This will be fine!’  – remember positive realistic self-talk is important.  


  3. Now, you’re ready to lead the meeting. As you go into the room, re-run successful meetings you’ve lead in the past in your mind and keep your breathing even and slow. Try not to get caught up in any ‘pre-meeting drama’ and focus on the task at hand. Remain aware of your emotions and thoughts throughout the meeting – not every aspect may go entirely to plan, so be realistic


  4. After it’s done take time to review and make a mental note of what went well. This ‘secures’ your confidence with these tasks for the future. Also, think about what you’d like to improve on and consider ways to develop these moving forward.


Leader Confidence Makes a Difference!

The outcome of my friend’s show of confidence demonstrates the difference leader confidence makes. After the incident in the hospital, she later learned that Dr. Thomas had complained about her, but her boss had supported her actions.  Several weeks later, the consensus among the team was that Dr. Thomas had stopped shouting at nurses throughout the hospital. Result!

Would You Like To Know How To Develop Your Confidence as a Leader?

I can help.
Click here to find out more about my Executive Coaching programs.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.