Let’s ReThink the Notion of a Confident Leader

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In uncertain and volatile times, we need strong and confident leadership, don’t we?!

The answer might be more complicated than a simple Yes or No. As a psychologist might wittily remark, it all depends… How do we define and see such confidence? Is a confident leader the one, who has all the answers to difficult questions? Is confidence about the conviction in these answers? Would a confident leader make bold decisions and stick to them? And a confident leader doesn’t need to think twice, right?

According to the latest bestselling book by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, all of the above doesn’t reflect the confidence we should want or strive for, because it hinders our development, productivity and success in rapidly changing environments. Grant literally suggests everyone to ‘Think Again’. Looking at ‘rethinking’ as both a mindset and a skillset, Grant argues that in the volatile world we need to be ready and know how to rethink, we should constantly challenge our knowledge, beliefs, and ideas, and we should be ready to pivot. In other words, we should learn to think like a scientist.

When in ‘scientist mode’, emerging ideas and solutions are considered a hypothesis, which requires testing, rather than correct answers that require approval. Scientists start with questions, not with answers, scientist are devoted to finding the truth, not to being right. When presented with robust data, exemplary scientists are ready to shift their ideas, create better hypotheses and, most of all, acknowledge that they do not know it all. Is such openness, curiosity, and humility something we see in leadership often? Moreover, is such an inquisitive scientific mindset something we know to consciously value?

While reading Grant’s book with its brilliant examples, I couldn’t help but recognize the other mindsets described as more prevailing and common. For example, being in an argument, speaking up on a certain topic or just explaining our opinions to someone, haven’t we all slipped into the ‘preacher’ mode? When ‘preaching’ we get defensive, we strongly advocate for our beliefs and points of view, we desperately need to be right. In fact, we usually enter a meeting at work to defend and fight for our position rather than at least allow the possibility to modify it. If not ‘preaching´, we might be in the ‘prosecutor’ mode, hence striving (possibly even unconsciously) to prove someone else wrong and find all possible faults in their arguments. In such cases we don’t listen to understand, do we? We listen to confront. Finally, Grant introduces the mode of ‘politicians’ as well – the mode of seeking approval, being liked by others, being ‘elected’. Yet, don’t preachers, prosecutors, or politicians sound confident? Indeed, most of the time they might, or they do… yet, this is not the type of confidence Adam Grant would be arguing for, as such type of confidence wouldn’t help in making the right decisions, revisiting them for better decisions, showing the necessary flexibility and sustaining curiosity and improvement.

Grant suggests developing so-called confident humility, where confidence is shown in bold vision and a belief that great things can be done, while humility is the grounded understanding that one doesn’t know it all, that humans are fallible, that there is always more to learn and understand. Great examples and support for such humility came into the light of global leadership during the Covid pandemic, as discussed in one of my previous blog posts. Indeed, when facing such a global threat and challenge as the recent pandemic, we are better off with leaders who are conscious of ‘not (yet) knowing and understanding it all’, rather than with the ones confidently dismissing Covid-19 to be a simple flu. Naturally, we are also better off with leaders who acknowledge being mistaken, rather than doubling down on their challenged assumptions.

Echoing the concept of confident humility, Grant also speaks about humble narcissism, which combines the narcissistic quality of ambition with humbleness of the process. Ambitious leaders can show humility of ideas, by acknowledging that ideas are not perfect and have their downsides; they can show humility towards performance, by admitting that performance is not perfect, and mistakes happen; and finally, they can show humility towards organizational culture, by recognizing that the culture is also not perfect and there is always room for improvement, growth and ‘otherness’.

Does this sound somewhat familiar? Haven’t we all heard about the benefits of keeping an open mindset? Doesn’t Carol Dweck speak about this desire to learn and develop in her growth mindset approach? Isn’t Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability also directing leaders towards humility? Well, if it does feel like we’ve heard it all, and we know it all, maybe it is just the right time to Think Again 🙂

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