Confidence has long been regarded as a cornerstone of effective leadership. And there's no denying its importance; after all, who would follow a leader unsure of their own direction?
Yet confidence can be a double-edged sword. It shines best when paired with humility and the willingness to admit your vulnerability. On the other hand, when it spills over into arrogance, it narrows your vision and risks alienating your team.
I've seen it both ways, countless times, during my 15-year career as a professional basketball player. What I learned is that true, genuine confidence is never loud. In fact, the most confident leaders I've seen had two distinct qualities: They listened more than they talked, and they were the first ones to own up to their responsibilities and admit their mistakes. The best leaders are never afraid to expose their vulnerability.
The neuroscience of trust
Paul J. Zak, in his Harvard Business Review article, "The Neuroscience of Trust," delves into the role of oxytocin, a brain chemical, in regulating emotions and pro-social behaviors like trust, empathy, and positive communication. He identifies eight key management behaviors that build trust: recognizing excellence, creating healthy challenges, granting autonomy, supporting job customization, sharing information openly, nurturing relationships, fostering personal growth, and last but not least, embracing vulnerability.
"Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things," says Zak. "Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others."
As Brené Brown explains in her famous TED Talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," being vulnerable leads to genuine connections with others. The reason for this is that vulnerability breeds honesty and authenticity. People want to follow a leader they can identify and connect with, not someone who shows him or herself as different or above.
Imagine you and I are standing on opposite ends of a number on the ground. You see a six. But I see a nine. We are both correct in our viewpoints. Still, the disagreement without accepting the slight probability of being wrong can snowball into unnecessary conflict.
How many times have you seen this happen in real life? In a position of leadership, assuming you're correct because of your role can be detrimental both for you and your team. As a leader, it's important to consider how you might be wrong before making any final judgments.
In his new book, The Diary of a CEO: The 33 Laws for Business and Life, Steven Bartlett calls it a "negative manifestation." He says that looking at things from the perspective of what could go south can help you see red flags, identify future risks, and predict anything else that may stand in the way of your success.
Before moving forward with a verdict, smart leaders run through a mental checklist that looks something like this:
"Have we considered all possible angles?"
"Whose voices are we not hearing?"
"What would the counter-argument to our current position be?"
Most importantly, the million-dollar question:
"How am I wrong here and why will this fail?"
"Prevention is better than cure," says Bartlett. "And in business, there's no chance of prevention without having a humble confrontation with the prospect of failure before starting out." The wisest thing you can do as a leader is know enough to know you don't know.
Starting from "maybe" can make a world of difference in how you approach challenges and opportunities. Instead of seeing things in black and white, this mindset allows for shades of gray, opening your mind and enriching your decision-making abilities. You cannot solve complex problems with binary solutions. You need creativity and, most important, collaboration.
Additionally, when you think you can't be wrong, failure can be a tough pill to swallow. On the flip side, maintaining a sliver of openness keeps you prepared for unexpected outcomes. Instead of sinking into disbelief, you'll find it easier to pivot, adapt, and learn from the experience.
Leaders who question themselves also set a precedent within their teams. By admitting that you might not have all the answers, you make it easier for others to voice their ideas or concerns, creating a foundation of mutual respect and trust with vulnerability as a pillar.
Leadership isn't about having all the answers. It's about asking the right questions--both of yourself and those around you. Confidence is important, and when paired with openness and vulnerability, it can make all the difference. It keeps you humble, prepares you for life's inevitable curveballs, and most important, makes you an imperfect and vulnerable leader--one that's worth following.
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