There is a secret to leadership that goes beyond trust and integrity or building on influence and authenticity.
People follow where others lead when they can convince us of their ability to successfully navigate in the direction we want to move.
When someone, through their words and actions, demonstrates that they have the vision to create change that we want to be a part of, we allow ourselves to accept their leadership.
This does not, and should not, preclude our own ability to lead the creation of change ourselves. The exciting thing about the world is that there is no end of problems to solve. Those problems require a contribution from people with a broad and diverse set of skills at different levels of experience.
There is space in the world for an infinite number of leaders. This includes you. But, if you struggle as a leader, or find it difficult to get others to see you in that light, you may be failing to develop the three C’s: Confidence, Competence, and Communication.
Confidence means believing not only that you can lead, but that you should.
People generally seek reassurance. Human’s as a species tend to be somewhat risk-averse. And why shouldn’t we be? At the most primitive level, it keeps us alive.
As we pursue our higher-order needs, however, we don’t generally abandon our risk-averse natures. We don’t want to be hurt. We don’t want to fail.
Therein lies a secret to leadership that many never seem to grasp. Leadership is about enacting directed change, and change always contains some element of risk. If you choose to take responsibility for driving that change, you assume management of the associated risk.
When we follow someone, whether it be as an example in life or a guiding role in a professional environment, we want to believe they recognize and have a plan to address that risk.
We want to be successful on the winning team. If the leader of that team wavers in their conviction or doubts their own ability to deliver the expected results, why would we allow them to lead us?
So, your first task as one who would lead is this: You must believe that you are the right person, at the right time and place, for the situation at hand. And, you must be willing and able to let that belief shine through in your words and actions. The people you would lead must see that you are confident you can lead them.
It’s one thing to admit that we could use some improvement in our confidence. But how do we get here? It’s not as simple as deciding to be more confident. Is it?
Here are a few tried and true practices that have helped me learn to live confidently through a series of positive habits you can incorporate right now.
First, and most importantly, work to banish self-doubt from your life. You don’t need that negativity, and it’s doing you no favors.
Other’s having confidence in you leads naturally from confidence in yourself.
If this is a major blocking issue for you, start with small, achievable wins. Find something you can do and do well. This can be a project, a hobby, a new work out routine, a commitment to read more — whatever you want.
Set a goal and stick to it. When you succeed, celebrate your accomplishment. Reinforce to yourself that you can set goals and achieve them.
Rinse and repeat, with goals or tasks that grow in their ambition or complexity. You will miss some targets. You will fail.
Try again tomorrow. Promise yourself to do better and mean it. Don’t let yourself down.
Self-confidence is built on such achievable habits.
Be aware of negative language and thoughts, and make better choices
I’m sure you’ve heard the maxim: “you are what you eat.” I would extend this to include what you feed your brain.
The words we use to speak to others or about ourselves, even the thoughts that run through our head, give shape to how we view ourselves.
How often do you hear yourself saying things like:
- I can’t do it…
- I don’t know how to…
- I won’t…
We say or think these things as unchangeable statements of fact as we talk about our own limitations.
I can’t do that, I’ve never tried something like that before.
That may be accurate. And, it’s highly likely that you never will unless you change how you think about your own potential capabilities. Stop talking about what you can’t or won’t do, and instead lead with a statement of intent: “I’ve never tried that, but I’m ready to learn.”
Recognize that failure is a possibility
There is a surprising well of confidence that any one of us can tap into. Understanding how to reach it requires that we first recognize the chance of failure.
The fear of failure can, and often does paralyze us. The higher the stakes, the more visible the scenario we find ourselves in, the worse our fear of failure becomes.
What if we choose to set that fear aside? Choose to instead accept that failure is a possibility, and then move forward. This is the secret to forging ahead with confidence even in the face of possible failure.
Admit that you may fail and examine that possibility. Get comfortable with it. Known fears are easier to face. Shine a light on that possibility of failure so we can break it down and then find ways to set it aside.
First, do the necessary prep work. Look beyond the fear of failure and try to understand what may lead to that failure. What can you do to mitigate that possibility? If there’s no way to decrease the likelihood of failure, then establish a plan for recovery.
When failure becomes one of many possible outcomes, and we’ve done the mental work of preparing for it as best we can, then we move ahead confidently. We’re prepared to either succeed or fail, recover and learn.
Believe in yourself, and act accordingly
I’ve never really liked the common phrase, “Fake it till you make it.”
Fake people suck. Don’t be one.
Instead, adopt an unwavering belief in yourself. Confidence, not arrogance. Banish doubt from your behaviors and thoughts. And, in all that you do, move ahead with confidence that you will succeed, or fall down, dust yourself off, and try again until you do.
Confidence is a critical characteristic to adopt, but there is also a danger there to be avoided.
Have you ever worked with or encountered someone that was overwhelming confident, and yet wholly incompetent?
Their belief in themselves is unshakeable, and yet all it does is lead them full speed ahead into the pit of failure, from which they learn nothing.
These are the “fake it till you make it” people that overlook one crucial factor: Competence.
Or, worse yet, their confidence puts them in a position to be a leader in name only, a figure-head that asserts authority but provides no real leadership in practice.
All faking it, no making it.
Competence provides that critical counterpoint to confidence.
Developing competence in your leadership skills, and in your areas of expertise where you would lead positions you to become a resource that promotes and enables success in those around you.
How can you develop competence to balance your self-confidence? It’s easier than you think.
This doesn’t mean you have to pay exorbitant amounts for a fancy school or sacrifice all your free time to studying. Find an approach to intentional learning that suits you, and give it the time it deserves.
We are lucky enough to live in a time where the abundance of freely available knowledge is more significant than at any previous point in the history of mankind. There are few, if any, excuses left to any of us.
Where do you start?
Identify your areas of interest. If you need to grow your professional knowledge, expand that list to include your current or future desired areas of expertise. Now widen that further into the domain or market knowledge that applies to your job or business.
That’s already probably a significant list of topic areas. Now consider how specialized you need or want to be. Does your field require you to be a generalist, with a broad set of knowledge that is an inch deep and a mile wide? Or do you need to be tightly focused on a particular specialty, and work towards mastery of that area?
Whatever your list of learning looks like, whether it be professional or personal, keep these tips in mind:
- Learning without application will be forgotten. Find exciting or innovative ways to apply your new skills
- Try teaching something to someone that you have to learn first. Sometimes, being an expert simply means being two steps ahead of the student.
- Always be learning. The world doesn’t stop evolving and changing, neither should you.
Leaders understand that failure is a certainty, but don’t let your lack of competency in any area form a pattern of preventable failure that destroys your credibility.
Confidence and competence help us to remove barriers to assuming a leadership role. Still, it is communication that enables us to manifest our ability to lead to real, measurable results.
Communication is the vehicle by which your competence, knowledge, and vision for a particular outcome are made real by translating it to an actionable direction for those you would lead.
If you are competent and confident that you can lead in a given situation, but you cannot communicate the vision or plan to those you would lead, then you’ve already failed.
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course, it does, unless you define sound as noise that is given meaning because it is heard. Otherwise, it’s just noise.
If you want to lead within your peer group, but you are not an effective communicator, no one will follow. Your confidence in your ability to lead, and your competence in skills or knowledge that has prepared you to lead mean nothing if you cannot effectively communicate to the people who will join you to enact change.
If effective communication is a struggle for you, that is something you will have to address and improve. While the specifics of communication improvement will be distinct to your problem areas, there is one piece of advice that will serve anyone well:
Effective communication means being heard and understood, not just saying what you want to say.
Consider how you can improve your ability to communicate by identifying and removing your limitations in this area that prevent you from being understood.
Leadership Demands the Best of Us
Once we’ve made a decision to follow someone, our logical mind requires reinforcement to validate that decision. We want to know that we are not following blindly or unwisely. But often, we don’t have the expertise, knowledge, or information necessary to evaluate those decisions effectively. We have to fall back on other indicators to give us that peace of mind. When we look for that validation, we are looking for confidence, competence, and clear communication in those we would follow.
Consider how leaders that you admire exhibit these traits and skills. Don’t rule out careful observation of “leaders” that don’t seem to possess these skills. Often we learn just as much from examples of what we should not do.
As we consider what we look for when we choose to follow, we learn what we must develop when we wish to lead.
This article is part of my 4-part series that answers the question: Where Does Leadership Start? If you enjoyed this content and want more from me, you can join my group of Intentional Leaders here.
Ready for more? This is the final article in this series, but I write new articles on related topics regularly. Follow me here on Medium!
If you are ready to recognize yourself as a leader, you’ll want to read my book: You Are a Leader: Applying Military Leadership Principles to Professional Life.
The digital edition will be available for free. No strings attached.
Sign up here to be notified when it launches!
Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.
When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.