Confident leadership in an uncertain world

A thought-provoking post from Kevin Ball yesterday discussed a perennial dilemma for leaders – how do they appear confident when they really don’t have a clue?

Traditionally, as Kevin says, we have fallen back on knowledge – the quest for one solution or, at least, one with so much evidence behind it that it can blow any other suggestions out of the water. That is why there is a whole industry around management training and research. It is a lot easier to sound confident if you believe your plans will work and one of the best ways to convince yourself and others of this is to have numbers and graphs in your business case and management school qualifications after your name.

This creates a kind of hubris, fuelled by many business writers, in which good managers make firms successful and bad managers make them fail. Successful managers do A, B and C and display X, Y and Z attitudes. If your company is a success, well you must be following the formula. This is a great comfort to managers in successful companies and provides a model to those in less successful ones. We are good because we are XYZ and we do ABC. All you need to do is ABC and be XYZ and you’ll be there!

It’s all crap, of course. As I said a couple of weeks ago, it is very difficult to predict results from inputs when managing people. Pull lever A in one company and it might have very different results from pulling the same lever in a different company. Management research can only be evidence based up to a point.

Furthermore, there are limits to how much even the best managers can know about their business environment as economist Paul Ormerod argues here.

Firms alter their strategy over time. However, they have no explicit knowledge at any point in time either of the true impact on their fitness of either their own or other firms’ current strategies. Further, they have no knowledge of the effect which changing their strategy will have.

And then, of course, there is the complicating factor of organisational politics. A lot of the ‘how to’ management guides ignore politics altogether as it is just too messy. As most of us know, though, you can have the most well thought out and rigorously referenced business case in the history of the company yet you still get shot down in flames in the boardroom because your plan threatens someone’s empire.

When you add all this together, the case for the rational manager steering the company to success based on his knowledge and expertise starts to look a little threadbare. As the great J.G. March said, organisational decision-making is like a Garbage Can “into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped by participants as they are generated.” Management knowledge and expertise plays its part but so do a lot of other factors like politics, unpredictable employees, unforseen events and sheer luck. The stark truth is that business leaders have nowhere near the level of control of their organisations that the textbooks would have us believe.

This can come as a shock to managers, especially to those in successful companies.  As Chris Dillow says, “past success breeds complacency.” A few years ago, a senior executive at what had been a highly profitable organisation explained to me the rapid decline in its performance:

When the company was doing well we told ourselves that it was because we were all outstanding business leaders. The truth was that we had a product that almost sold itself because of what our predecessors had done. Now that competition is more fierce and the public has, to an extent, turned against us, we realise that we are not as good as we thought we were.

Events have a way of puncturing hubris and leaving the mighty looking distinctly mediocre.

Of course, non of this is what the business leader in search of confidence and certainty wants to hear. Managers, especially those tackling difficult business problems, can get quite aggressive when someone tells them that there are no quick solutions. I speak from bitter experience. I have been on the giving and the receiving end of such aggression.

But do leaders always need to sound confident? You bet! People are drawn to those who appear confident, so much so that they will continue to accept the pronouncements of self-assured people even after they have been proved wrong. Hesitancy and diffidence will see your followers melting away, especially in times of crisis.

An important skill for a business leader, then, is to be able to maintain a level of self-confidence in the face of uncertainty. As Stanford’s Bob Sutton says, a great boss is confident but not really sure. Or, as my good friend Mike Vernon once put it to a chief executive, “you need to become competent at being incompetent”. 

This is a lot easier said than done, especially when we have had the importance of expertise and ‘getting it right’ drilled into us for most of our careers. The ability to sit with that uncertainty and ambiguity while, at the same time, being confident and assertive is deeply uncomfortable. A few of us are born with it but most of us have to learn it and it’s not easy. It amuses me when we describe these capabilities as ‘soft skills’. There is nothing soft about them at all. Building the self-belief, self-awareness and judgement to be able to lead people through uncertainty is hard work. It’s actually much easier to bone up on research and collect facts, which is why so many managers, when faced with a crisis, end up reverting to type and looking for certainty in their own fields of expertise, or searching for that one magic bullet that will solve the problem. The first step towards confidence in the face of uncertainty is to acknowledge the fact that reason and expertise will only get you so far. Many managers struggle to grasp this.

As Kevin says, leadership is as much an art as a science. There is nothing soft or airy-fairy about it though. It’s damned difficult to learn. Think martial-arty rather than arty-farty. Next time someone uses the term ‘soft-skills’ say to them, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’ Alas, many of them won’t be.

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3 Responses to Confident leadership in an uncertain world

  1. Pingback: Confident leadership in an uncertain world - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Pingback: The Carnival of HR – Digging the New Breed and Learning from Old Friends « T Recs

  3. Doug Shaw says:

    Good evening. I’m stopping by on the carnival of HR tour – going to read all the posts.

    I think it’s interesting that you talk a lot in this post about confidence. The word confidence comes from the Latin con – with, and fide – believe. With faith. I like it – it feels authentic to me. It is very different from its evil cousin arrogance. The word arrogance comes fro the Latin ab – away, and rogare – to question. To turn away from questioning…because you think you already know the answer. I agree with you – leadership is damned difficult to learn.

    Cheers – Doug

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