Feb 2, 2023 6 min read

Do Leaders Have to Be Confident?

Do Leaders Have to Be Confident?

What's the role of confidence in leadership? Is it a requirement for being an effective leader? How confident are you about your confidence?

Confidence, on sale

Looking at the brochure of one leadership program, it seems confidence is necessary to be an effective leader and that all successful leaders are confident. This intuitively makes sense — after all who would want to follow a shaky leader.

You might also come across so called "confidence coaches". Supposedly these folks have figured out the formula and you will be ultra confident on short notice. Unfortunately, I don't have such super skills and neither can I teach you to be confident.

But it's interesting to consider what the underlying assumptions are of someone who's looking for a confidence coach and wants to become confident. The clues are in the term "looking for" and that confidence is a noun rather than a verb.

There are two common but misguided premises:

  1. In order to do something or be somebody you need to have confidence. Essentially confidence is a requirement but more importantly it's external and you have to "acquire it" before you can act like or do something.
  2. People who have it made are in fact confident, or that confidence was a key factor in getting them there. Here confidence is considered a causal factor.

As to the first, hundreds of biographies and autobiographies show that many successful leaders were not actually as confident as we make them out to be. They might not have displayed this externally, but internally they were anything but confident, albeit in varying degrees and depending on the situation and domain.

More importantly, they didn't let it become an impediment. Paradoxically, often it was the very lack of confidence which enabled behaviors that helped in reaching their heights. The ones who typically are eternally confident often are sociopaths disconnected from others and reality. It's the con who's often the most confident.

For the second one, we are getting the causation wrong. The plain simple fact is that confidence often is an effect, rather than a cause of success.

The social science writer Erik Barker captures this nuance in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree. In his usual self deprecating but insightful manner, he addresses common notions around oft-used terms like self esteem and confidence that we misunderstand in an age of constant promotion and exposure to perfect lives that the media portrays.

Barker puts it this way:

Believing in yourself is nice. Forgiving yourself is better.‌‌

Self-compassion beats self-esteem. I’d like to think that I’m the Jason Bourne of social science writing, but I’m probably a lot closer to its court jester. And that’s okay. We don’t need to see ourselves as larger than life and it’s often better if we don’t. You don’t want to fall into denial or be a jerk. You want to keep learning but not feel bad about yourself.

You need to avoid self-worth that is contingent on fantasy-based illusions or constantly proving yourself. So be self-compassionate. It’s got all the upsides of confidence without the downsides.

Adjust for your natural level of self-esteem‌

Are you normally pretty confident? Then enjoy the benefits but keep an eye out for delusion and stay empathetic. Seek situations that challenge you to keep yourself humble. Strive to keep an open mind instead of assuming you already know the answer. Be nice. Don’t end up as an emperor in your own mind.

Do you lack confidence? No problem. You’ll naturally learn faster than those know-it-alls and you’ll make more friends. Focus your efforts in quantifiable areas where competence can be accurately measured so you don’t have to sweat issues of perception. (Nobody cares if I’m confident in person as long as the words come out okay on the page.) Become great at what you do and confidence will increase. Which leads us to our next point .

Absolutely have to have more confidence? Earn it.

Confidence is a result of success, not a cause. So in spite of my fevered recommendation of self-compassion, if you still want to focus on confidence, the surest path is to become really good at what you do.

When Daniel Chambliss studied top swimmers, he found that by them focusing on “small wins” every day their skills progressed and their confidence in their abilities did too. When you have a competitive mind-set you always risk underperforming and feeling like a loser. When challenged, focus on improving your skills—not doing well or looking good.

Studies show “get-better goals” increase motivation, make tasks more interesting, and replenish energy. This effect carries over to subsequent tasks. As always, pick the right pond. G. Richard Shell of Wharton said that surrounding yourself with those who believe in you can lead to “transferred expectations” and a self-fulfilling prophecy, which increases confidence. You can become more confident over time with hard work. As Alfred Binet, inventor of the IQ test, said about intelligence, “It is not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.

Don't be a faker

Faking it is too hard and the price of failure is too high. The short-term benefits of impressing others aren’t worth being labeled untrustworthy and moving to Moldova. Even if you’re successful in tricking others, this all too often leads to tricking yourself, which is the most dangerous scenario of all. As Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
What’s that extra thing that self-compassion brings us that’s so darn special? It’s a little thing called “wisdom.” I’m not being sappy or poetic here either. In a study titled “Self-Kindness When Facing Stress,” they found that being compassionate with yourself was actually correlated with being wise. Not just IQ points or knowledge, wisdom. (How many things that you do every day can you really say are making you wiser?)

Harshly judging yourself as good or bad, as immediately successful or unsuccessful, is very black and white and narrow-minded. To achieve wisdom, you need a little more flexibility, acceptance, and the learning that comes with growth. Think about the wisest people you’ve known. Were they full of bluster and hubris? Or utterly without confidence? They were probably calm and understanding, forgiving and less judgmental. We’d all like to achieve that level of wisdom one day. And self-compassion is a great first step.

You and your confidence

Confidence tends to get automatically associated with leadership, and one common interpretation is that of an absence of doubt.

We've been trained to treat doubt and anxiety as negative signals, when in fact they're often just noise and part of playing the game at a higher level. Giving them the elevated status of key indicators leads us to go looking outside of ourselves in order to fix this "condition" that we are suffering from.

The mistake is to treat confidence as some sort of ingredient for success when the reality is that it's often a product of it. At the same time, internal doubt doesn't stop you from taking confident action. You can have a realistic assessment of your chances of succeeding, while at the same time being aware of what you need to work on and focusing on your efforts .

Confidence is more about your relationship with doubt rather than a total absence of it, or trying to eliminate it.

Courage tends to be a better word than confidence, because it means acting in the face of, rather than in the absence of something. In the same vein, confidence is not the absence of doubt, but taking actions confidently even in the face of it.

The cowards never started. The weak died along the way. That leaves us.

— Phil Knight in Shoe Dog

As with many things that have to be earned not just wanted, confidence can't necessarily be pursued, but rather it has to ensue. It follows out of the work and effort that we put in over time, from overcoming and becoming.

Trymy weekly emaillearn mental models & frameworks the best executive coaches in the world teach their clients.📚 You also get a curated spreadsheet of 100 best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.


  1. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker.
  2. Eric Barker's blog: https://bakadesuyo.com
  3. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.