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Facing Overconfidence in Leadership with Transparency

There’s a fine line between confidence and overconfidence in leadership, and navigating that line is one of the biggest challenges modern leaders face.

Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. So the successful among us inevitably take on greater and greater leadership responsibilities. And team members value confidence in their leaders. Who wants to follow someone who consistently projects an air of uncertainty? No, we rally behind leaders who believe in themselves.

Yet, success and confidence led us into the temptation zone where we are seduced by the sirens of overconfidence. And as Joann Lublin pointed out in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, overconfidence can become a “career killer” for leaders in the modern marketplace.

“Strong-headed senior managers who exaggerate their abilities and struggle to admit mistakes may find themselves on the outs in an era of flat organizations and greater transparency,” Lublin writes.

That’s because while we value confidence, we don’t want to follow know-it-alls who never listen to others and never admit their mistakes.

Lublin points out that overconfident leaders can “self-correct,” and she offers some sound advice from a few experts on how to change. One, exercise patience when you feel the urge to put others in their place because they messed up or because you clearly know more or better than them. And, two, allow a few respected colleagues to be “truth tellers” in your life – people who have permission to tell you when your confidence has crossed into overconfidence and arrogance.

That’s good advice. But to take it, leaders face an initial challenge that inevitably stumps most overconfident leaders: Actually admitting that that they lead with overconfidence.

I’ve worked for overconfident leaders, including one who never realized how his narcissism was impacting his leadership. Like the rest of us, he tended to wear blinders when it came to his faults. The people Lublin used as examples in her article all did the hardest part when they became self-aware of their overconfidence.

So how do we become aware that we have a problem, be it with overconfidence or something else? We can wait until someone has the courage to tell us or we can be proactive and ask. In either case, we have to listen with an open mind and an open heart, two things we tend to lack as our overconfidence grows.

Perhaps the most powerful way to hear from others is by participating in a 360-degree feedback survey. At least one of the examples in Lublin’s article used this approach. It allows the people we work with to express their views anonymously and without fear of retribution. This gives us the confidence that the feedback we’re getting is genuine and that the warts others see in us are actually there.

If we’re overconfident, we might dismiss such warnings. What do they know, anyway, right? But if we’re truly confident, we shouldn’t fear correction. Confidence isn’t about knowing we’re always right; it’s about having the humility to know we don’t have all the answers and that we can always grow as leaders.

Overconfidence is a delusion that’s fed by our fears and insecurities. It takes courage to face it with transparency. But if we don’t find that courage, we’ll soon find we’re the type of leader no one wants to follow. In other words, we aren’t leaders at all.

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