By Michael Seitchik and Scott Weighart

Most of us harbor doubts from time to time.  We can feel this acutely at the beginning of a year, when a new strategy is in place, and so much feels out of our direct control. How important is a feeling of self-confidence to overcoming obstacles and achieving exceptional results for our companies?

Much has been written about confidence. Often, experts talk about it as a feeling of self-efficacy, even self-worth.  It’s the answer to the question: “Am I capable?”  “Can I do this?” “What if I fail?”  Amy Cuddy, author of Presence, wrote that to be successful, it’s important to “focus less on the impression you’re making on others and more on the impression you’re making on yourself.” 

However, our research has shown that in leadership you can feel doubt, and still do well. 

What is Confidence in Leadership?

While we don’t dispute the value of feeling you can do something, it turns out that self-confidence may not be as critical as you believe to impacting how others see you. Data from more than 1,000 high-potential and senior leaders shows many report feeling less than highly confident but still are viewed by their teams as confident and highly effective. 

How can this be? In executive presence, we are measuring perceptions of leader behaviors – meaning how other people experience you as a leader. Through a research-based set of questions designed to measure a leader’s presence, we ask direct reports, peers and managers to assess the leader’s confidence, through specific actions. These include the ability to encourage debate, evaluate facts and get to decisions. We found even leaders who feel self-doubt are often viewed as good decision makers and risk takers.

We Can Act Confidently Even When We Don’t Feel Confident

Confidence in mature leadership is defined in our research-based model as “being self-assured in decision making and action; ready to accept the risk and responsibility for taking timely action.” While it’s nice to feel a sense of confidence, many people don’t always feel it, and that’s okay. What matters is getting other people aligned and getting things done. Research shows that perceived confidence in leaders, which we assess through their behaviors, doesn’t take into account how the leader feels.    

For instance, a leader who is mature will encourage debate and provide a platform for others to express dissent. That leader shows confidence that in spite of disagreement, the team will get to a solution. If that leader encourages others to hold themselves accountable for results, they also see the leader as confident. These and other behaviors which we can measure with assessment have a powerful impact. Leaders evaluated as confident in these ways are seen as able to move their teams forward, take action, and get results.    

Two Leaders Learn They are Viewed as Confident

Lisa’s manager gave her a pleasant surprise when he gave her an average rating of 4.83 out of 5 on confidence. What did the manager see? On the item “Willing to take on the difficult issues without delay or avoidance, he gave her a 5. When she saw her feedback, Lisa said, “I guess my lack of confidence and experience is in my head!”

Ben rated himself lower than everyone else on every single one of the 15 facets. On the Confidence facet, his average self-score was 2.83. Yet, the average score from everyone else was a 4.56 – almost a two-point difference. Confidence was obviously a “happy blind spot” for Ben.  People commented that “his actions are something others should aspire to,” and “he quickly grasps complex situations and delivers high-quality results.” Ben’s boss definitely saw him as capable and confident.  His average score from others was a 4.67, and his boss gave him a 5. 


For Ben and Lisa, a great step in their development was at hand. Both of them felt better knowing how others viewed them: as extremely effective leaders who achieved real business results. This gave them a whole different perspective on their ability to make a difference that they would not have gathered through other means. This is a significant benefit of using a research-based assessment that looks at confidence and other qualities of executive presence: not as a gut feeling, but as behaviors.

In Summary

It seems then the honest measure of confidence is whether or not a leader thoughtfully takes on challenges and is decisive in carrying them out. It is helpful and healthy to take into account how we are showing up to our peers, those who work for us, and our managers. This isn’t to say we may not want to develop a stronger sense of inner confidence. But we can also accept that certainty and conviction are not always possible, or even necessary to carry forward a powerful leadership agenda.   

In order to achieve success, it’s better to focus on how to be the best leaders we can be. If we work to bring a healthy balance of humility and mature confidence to our work, we will deliver good results for our organizations. That in turn helps us feel a genuine sense of satisfaction, gratification and fulfillment. We know we’re doing right by ourselves and others. And that in turn can help us truly believe in ourselves.


This article is excerpted from the white paper The Confident Leader, by Michael Seitchik, Director of Research and Assessment, and Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development. To download the complete white paper about our research on confidence, click here.

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