In Leadership, When Does Your Hard-Earned Confidence Become A Weakness?

Successful executives get where they are because of their ability to make good decisions. The ability to predict the right course of action under even uncertain conditions is the hallmark of good leaders – something that comes from years of experience. Along with experience and the situational demands of leadership comes confidence and a tendency for swift and resolute arrival at decision making in the face of  uncertainty.

But when can this hard-earned confidence become a marked weakness?

The downside of confidence comes when we fail to recognize the boundaries of our expertise. The boundaries of our expertise are where our experience fails to provide us meaningful guidance. And this frontier where our strength ends can be hard to recognize – there are no markers or signs to guide us. For the highly experienced, it can be startlingly easy to start making mistakes or bad judgments because of lack of applicable experience in an area of decision making, and do so with gusto and confidence. When asked what being wrong feels like, most people will think about embarrassment, shame, anger etc. This is not what being wrong feels like. This is how we feel when we realize we are wrong – a big difference. After all, what does it feel like to be wrong? Being wrong feels just like being right.

In leadership and management, the issue of misplaced confidence is very common. And it causes real and fundamental problems. Here are some recent examples from my experience:

    • A startup owner who cannot get funding despite having a great product and willing investors. He is over-confident and unwilling to change his mind on how to manage the business.
    • A hot-shot technical founder of a company interferes with the marketing team that is trying to sell his products.  Even though the founder doesn’t know anything about marketing, he is second guessing his marketing team. This results in lost opportunity and a threat to the continued success of the company that he spent so much time building.
  • A group manager who demoralizes his team and loses key contributors because of micromanagement.

As a manager and startup advisor, I can tell you that this happens a lot. When folks spend years earning their stripes in their respective disciplines, that hard-earned expertise frequently jumps out of bounds and asserts itself in places where it should not.

If this is such a big problem, what can we do about it? The most effective managers and leaders have a playbook for keeping themselves in check, through the tricky business of managing both inside and outside of their areas of strength.

Key Strategies:

Self reflection

Frequently taking stock of your skills and your weaknesses is a healthy exercise for everyone – especially leaders. While it may seem anathema to leadership to consider where your skill set ends and uncertainty begins, it can be foundational to your success.

It is not about you

One big step to avoiding the confidence error comes in realizing that ‘it is not about you’. This is a panacea for multiple management woes – including this area of confidence outside of your area. When managers frame their decisions in an egocentric way, they can lead themselves astray in the process. When it is about you, the urge to manage outside of your expertise can be irresistible. Framing to outcomes (“lets get this right”) instead of process (“I did this”) is a fundamental and healthy starting point.

Paying Attention

Misplaced confidence is often driven by simple failure to pay attention, letting the warm feeling of command spill outside of the lines where it belongs.  Being ‘present’ when making decisions is  a good start to avoiding the pitfalls of misplaced confidence.

Surround yourself with people smarter than you

Find people that know more about every part of your business than you do, and listen to them. This magnifies your efficacy and increases the quality of every decision you make. With experts to guide you, every decision has the power of multiple minds behind it – always better than one mind alone. An executive operating in this way finds that as good as their decisions are, that becomes the starting point for the results she can drive.

While on the surface, this discussion of misplaced confidence is about management, what we are really discussing is wisdom. Wisdom is the global sense of the limits of our knowledge, and a willingness to embrace doubt when it is appropriate. Wisdom is a key leadership trait that, while rare, is a cornerstone for securing the trust of your customers and your organization.

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Kevin Ready

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