Common Purpose / 20 March 2024

In Conversation: Is Confidence Really All That Important In Leadership?

Two Common Purpose leaders share some surprising revelations.


It’s a Friday afternoon when Common Purpose's Group CEO Adirupa Sengupta dials into her call. She’s been travelling for a whole week, from the UK to Indonesia, then onto Bangladesh. It’s been busy, but she’s a seasoned pro at this, and she's confident in her abilities and in her limitations in all kinds of circumstances - be they fast-paced, challenging or uncertain - as she navigates her leadership journey.  

And that’s why when David O'Connor, Common Purpose's Director of Learning and Innovation joins on the other end of the line, she beams at the potential for the conversation she’s about to have. For Dave, it’s a Friday morning in the UK, and he’s pondered the topic he’s about to discuss with Adi numerous times - understanding and confidently conveying the subject matter they’ll be speaking about today is part and parcel to the work he does here at Common Purpose.

So what are they here to talk about? Confidence. Something all of us strive to have, or at least admire in others. It’s something that draws people in and sets them apart, but it also has the potential to create situations that aren’t desirable. It’s this ‘juxtaposition’ that Adi and Dave want to really unpack.  

Below, they debate the question: Is confidence really all that important in leadership?

Adi: Hi Dave! Good morning? It must be morning for you.

Dave: Hello, yeah it is, good morning, and good afternoon to you.

Adi: This is an interesting debate isn't it – the role of confidence in leadership. How important really is it? I suppose the best place to start is with the question: What difference does confidence actually make in leadership – the good and the bad?

Dave: I think when you are having a conversation about confidence within organizations, it can quickly be attached to raising voice and raising aspirations – both of these are really important for people to feel engaged and connected to the work they’re doing. But from an organizational point of view, the value in confidence really comes from when that voice can execute effective decision making.

Sometimes, very confident people will steer conversations, but not always in a conducive way. Having confidence can take you off-agenda really easily, and subsequently, that can actually lead to poor decision making because it makes you blind to some of the real risks or flaws in the plan.

Adi: Absolutely I do agree, and you’ve gone very deep here, but I’ll also look at it from a surface level, which is where I’ll set my starting point. Confidence helps to build trust, even when that trust might be in question. Instinctively, rightly or wrongly, it sort of puts people in the position where you think, ‘OK, this person appears confident, they know what they're talking about,’ regardless of whether what they’re saying is the best solution. But ultimately, confidence does build trust and it helps you to bring people along. So I think on principle, I feel confidence is a good thing, and it’s needed in leadership.

That said, it can absolutely produce blind spots in one's own leadership. It can stop you from questioning things and stop you from becoming curious. Confidence can become a barrier.

For me, there’s also a parallel in confidence around being self-assured. This is a good thing – it’s accepting that you know what you know, but you also can accept that there are things you don’t know. But sometimes, people can separate the two and think that if a person is confident, then they must know everything – I don’t think this should be true at all.

So there are many good things about confidence in leadership, but it can also depend on the way it is interpreted.

Dave: I definitely agree with that. I think trust is such a big thing within confidence – it reassures people. And that reassurance gives people a deeper connection. That builds trust and respect, and it really gives other people more of a sense of you. You can see it as a real competence.

When people have a good sense of who you are and what you’re thinking and where you’re coming from, then you of course can develop much deeper connections. So we can already see how interconnected confidence is to so many other leadership principles and traits.

As you were talking just now Adi I was reminded of the iceberg analogy which has some application in confidence; there’s the tip that we show everyone, which is the confidence bit – it’s super small actaully but made out to be so much bigger – and under the surface, no matter how confident you are, most people are rushing around beneath the surface  trying to create an air of confidence and break out of the imposter syndrome we all feel.

Adi: Yes, exactly, and you said something earlier, Dave which I’m thinking about - confidence as a competency in the context of leadership, and confidence as a behavioural trait. When it becomes a behavioural trait, it can really be dangerous for an organization - it can take organizations down a blind alley.

Overconfident people who don't even question whether they can be anything other than confident, they can take people, teams and organizations in a siloed direction, and that can be unhealthy.

So I really want to highlight this – the behavioural trait that confidence can create. When you’re deciding whether to project a similar behavioural style of confidence as someone else, you should ask yourself, what is it exactly that they do that comes across as confident? And therefore, what does that cause around them?

Dave: I think the crux of it from a leadership point of view is  really viewing confidence like a pendulum: You need to find an equilibrium of being confident, but not allowing it to make your decision-making rigid, instead remaining open to new ideas and perspectives. 

Timing is everything

Adi: Looking at confidence from another lens – you might disagree with me here Dave, but I do think with confidence there is a time and place for ‘playing the part’ a little bit. And hear me out; I think you need to appear confident in order to take people with you, because otherwise you'll have people questioning you. Maybe it's not true anymore about leadership?! But I feel this hasn't changed.

You kind of have to have a reasonable degree of confidence, and on Dave’s point about the spectrum, you need a degree in order to start to build connections and to bring people with you. Otherwise you may lose people right at the start of the journey, and that’s no good for leadership.

In saying that, I think a part of that confidence is also acknowledging that you don’t know everything and being confident about this in itself! So I think there is a starting point where you do really need confidence, and then you have to figure out how you can temper it as you go along. What do you think, Dave?

Dave: I think  confidence is often only associated with the positive. And there is huge value in confidence, and being really open and honest about the things that you don't know.

But I think you have to be really, really direct. People again will value and respect the opinions of people who are just a little bit more direct in their in their communication around the things that they're unsure about - the worst thing is sitting with it and not knowing whether you do or don’t know what to do, then it’s very hard to help or to make an impact. And people lose faith in you as a leader very easily.

Raising your voice is needed – but when is the right time?

Dave: Raising voice and aspiration from an organizational perspective is amazing, it’s needed, but sometimes the agenda might be coming from the wrong place. That confidence should be enveloping the notion of learning and growing, it shouldn’t solely be about progression and speaking out for the sake of speaking out.

Adi: And to do that, organizations have to understand what people actually want - the culture of the organization can spur people on to be as confident as ever, but for some people, confidence looks very different depending on their own culture.

When I was growing up, even if you confidently expressed something that you might not know much about, you'd be easily dismissed. In these kinds of cultures, you must come across as confident in the sense that you do know everything, which is what we were talking about before.

So in saying that, I think when people are confident in saying they don’t have all the answers, it’s important to take note of the context and culture and be conscious about where it's coming from.

Does confidence really need to be ‘loud’?

Dave: Oftentimes confidence is associated with loudness. So it’s having the biggest voice, the biggest personality, but I do think some of  the best type of confidence, more often than not, comes from a lace called quiet confidence.

It’s when you're going into something with a sense of authenticity, and self-assuredness and humility, you know how to listen, and you know how, when and why you need to question things - questioning is something we can forget about in confidence because we often think confidence lies in providing the answer, not asking for one.

But really, confidence is actually in asking the question. So people who are quietly confident are usually incredibly diligent and focussed on delivering good stuff – they prioritise the output and are less about leading the conversation just because they might think thats the best thing to do.

Adi: Exactly, and fear comes into this too. Like the idea that if you don’t speak, people will think of you differently. So confident people might not know what they’re talking about, but they’re desperate to get their voice heard.

Dave: That’s it, and the balance is striking something between being confident and direct, but also being equally open, and only being ‘loud’ when the time calls for it – when you know it’s needed for something deeper, and not just for show.

Encouraging loud confidence – are organizations or society responsible?

Dave: It pays to note that loud confidence, and the sentiment of raising voice isn’t necessarily an organizational construct. It plays out in organizations   but it’s actually a societal construct. That's how the world is constructed, rightly, wrongly, whatever it might be; we  promote the loud voices and let’s go of the quiet far too easily. So those who are quieter and have interests have to fight harder for what they want. But then the answer becomes about noise in order to break through as opposed to he best of articulation of need. This is the crux of it.

I think it’s an interesting debate because this notion of favouring loud confidence often gets attached to organizations, but I wonder how much organizations can actually do when it comes to changing that sentiment.

Adi: And I remember talking to you Dave about this exact thing – that this is a societal thing and if you make it an organizational problem, then what’s going to happen? You’ll have a conversation around it, sure, but nothing is going to necessarily change from an organizational level when this sentiment is so deeply entrenched in the society we all live in.

Where does confidence in leadership come from?

Adi: I remember during COVID, everything was of course so uncertain, and we were all taking a leap of faith – we didn’t know the right answer but we forged ahead with our programmes virtually. And I remember someone actually asked me, how did you have confidence to do that and know that it might work?  

The truth is, I wasn’t confident, and I didn’t know if it would work, I didn’t have the answer. But at that point, I realised you’ve got to give yourself permission to accept this and to move forward anyway with the knowledge that you have a team with competencies and skills – and that’s what confidence is.

Sometimes, confidence really is knowing you aren’t confident enough to do something alone, but you are confident in others’ ability to see it through. That’s so important to remember. That’s why relationships and engagement with your team are crucial.  

Dave: Yeah, adding to this example, we received  a lot of external validation at that time during COVID when we were building a solution - that's huge. We all want to hear we're doing well, or that we’re on the same page as other people, that tells us that if we can do it once, we can do it again. That’s confidence.

I also think about how this all happened, and it was really because we had that sense of collective togetherness. Our confidence came from the fact that we were all in the same boat. We were all steering the same direction. We all knew that we had to make something work. There was no option, and in order to do that, we had to let go of that fear and go forwards together.

Adi: That’s it. When you let go of things, especially in those contexts that are negative, that’s confidence. It’s accepting that you don’t know the answers and embracing the uncertainty and trusting your team’s abilities.

Confidence – a final definition

Dave: Confidence is fundamentally a mindset. At the end of the day, you know you can learn tricks and techniques and skills to build it, but ultimately, confidence is a mindset that is consistent no matter what situation is posed or context you find yourself in. Going back to our COVID example, we all tackled that with a confident mindset, despite not knowing the result, and we all learned and grew through it. We built more confidence from that situation.

Adi: Absolutely. And this actually reminds me of a conversation I had with my son, I was on my way to the airport to meet a potential client and he asked me, ‘Are you confident you can get them?’

I think it’s such an interesting question because actually no, I’m not confident I will get them, I don’t know if I will, but sometimes it just takes approaching it with a mindset that looks to the positive – you might know something will be a challenge with a result unknown, but if you go into it being confident in yourself, and in the assets and tools around you to give it a really good go, that’s confidence.

And so, I answered him; ‘Yes, I’m confident that I will listen, I will try to find areas of commonality, and hopefully as a result of that, we will end up working together’. 


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