The fine line between confidence and hubris

I admit to having an affinity for aw-shucks people.

I’ve met combat veterans who aren’t fond of attention and will tell you they were just doing their job — of getting shot at to protect you and me. My father-in-law was of this variety (and as a WWII vet, the “greatest generation”). Only those who knew him well understood his backbone, perseverance, bravery and talent. Conversely, I’ve met blowhards who are far more hot air and hubris than talent; Donald Trump comes to mind.

As a leader, where should you fall on this continuum?

I like to explore the conundrums of leadership, and one of them is the trick of being (and showing) confidence while avoiding hubris. Somewhere between the poles of low self-esteem and delusions of grandeur is the sweet spot required as a leader. You and I have seen many folks on the polar ends, and they’re incapable of leadership success, at least over the long run. The middle of this scale is where I’ve observed the most effective leaders.

My son-in-law, who’s a talented psychotherapist, asked me one day if a bit of narcissism was necessary for success as a CEO. I don’t think so. It may sometimes correlate to success, but it’s not essential. And, in fact, in anything larger than a cupful, it’ll reduce their chance for success.

Most of my clients have been more on the aw-shucks side of this equation, and I’ve had several who needed to learn how to accept winning and toot their own horn a bit to succeed. Showing confidence in yourself, your decisions (though they won’t all be correct) and your team is a valuable and even necessary trait for a leader. It’s OK to question yourself and natural to have some self-doubt, but if you don’t believe that you’re capable of success and worthy of your accomplishments, you’re running on borrowed time.

The other side of the equation — breathing your own exhaust — requires a more painful fix. In my experience, only a public failure or allowing yourself to be open to feedback from a truth teller will produce the opportunity for change. That doesn’t mean it will happen, just that there’s hope.

People want to follow confident leaders, and they want to see those with hubris get kicked in the behind. Who are you going to be?

Categories: Management & Leadership