How can I build self-confidence as a leader while staying humble?
January 19, 2021 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Despite being reasonably far along in age (late 50’s) and career (UX design director), I struggle with being comfortable and confident in my role as a “leader.” I want to change this so I can grow as a leader, a manager, a mentor, and man. My desire to be a leader is not motivated by a narcissistic desire for rank and status but rather a logical step in my professional, personal and spiritual development.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve led teams of 5-35 people on large projects with mostly a high degree of success — but sometimes less so. The one issue that keeps me from greater success is my fear of being exposed as incompetent, an imposter. As a leader, I am self-aware enough to not pretend to know everything and delegate to those who know better. This makes complete sense when we are talking about expertise needed in a highly-specific subject area or discipline, but I have often relied too heavily on delegation out of fear of failure. My fears are stoked when I face up against others in my organization who I fear are “better” (equipped / experienced / educated / spoken / bred) than I.

I’m determined to look at my skill gaps pragmatically to instill confidence by strengthening my leadership and practical skills in necessary areas.

What are your thoughts on how servant-leader types like myself (who find narcissistic grappling for status abhorrent) can build their leadership chops without sacrificing humility?
posted by nandaro to Human Relations (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Have a look at the book Dare to Lead by Brene Brown.
posted by Thella at 2:13 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]

You used the word "role". Basically somebody has to be able to keep meetings focused, tasks moving along so the deliverables will meet deadlines, be the point of contact between teams and departments, express thanks or cautions to team members, disseminate information and coordinate efforts by team members. You probably know all this, but it might just be a matter of perspective. In that role you are providing a service, and often (not always) there are fewer people that can lead teams than can be part of them, and some just don't want the extra work or responsibility. It does not seem to me (???) that someone voluntarily and diligently fulfilling a necessary role is in particular danger of getting a big head. Though we all know that it happens to some leaders, I don't think it's part and parcel of the job.
posted by forthright at 2:39 PM on January 19 [5 favorites]

I'm getting Christian type vibes off your question, apologies if this isn't accurate!

A book I have really enjoyed is Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. It's designed for pastors and other church leaders, and takes a look at Moses, who had imposter syndrome big time.

Again, if you're not talking spiritual leadership, it's probably not helpful, but I suggest it in case it is.

Brené Brown is excellent, too.
posted by freethefeet at 2:59 PM on January 19

OP, I could have written this at various points in my life, so first, you are totally not alone!

Treatment / medication for anxiety was huge for me. when the anxiety chilled out it took a huge chunk of the impostor syndrome with it.

(You use the word "imposter" so I bet you know what imposter syndrome is, but just in case you don't, mental health people named a whole syndrome after what you and I feel)

You can pat yourself on the back without being a narcissist. I give myself permission to feel proud of myself. I take extra special note of the things that go well, especially the things are instinctive and effortless. Like the other day I unblocked a junior colleague by answering a question in ten seconds and saved them a day of research. That's a giant win for everyone, that junior person is now a whole day ahead of where they were if I weren't around. I keep stories like that close so I can use them to stop the imposter prosecutor when it gets whispering again.

(and also to write the performance self-review I am currently procrastinating on)
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:00 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]

My desire to be a leader is not motivated by a narcissistic desire for rank and status but rather a logical step in my professional, personal and spiritual development.
What are your thoughts on how servant-leader types like myself (who find narcissistic grappling for status abhorrent) can build their leadership chops without sacrificing humility?

The one issue that keeps me from greater success is my fear of being exposed as incompetent, an imposter.

So, I wonder if part of the problem is that you have an ingrained negative view people you have characterized as "leaders." Have you had some very bad experiences with leaders you now perceive as narcissistic or driven by ego and a desire for power? I wonder if you have set up a kind of black-and-white thinking, where someone is either a leader and narcissist and bad or else they're not in a leadership position and they're good.

It sounds like you are doing a fine job in leadership roles, because "mostly a high degree of success" is actually pretty great. I wonder if the issue here isn't so much skill development as becoming more comfortable with the idea of leaders and leadership and yourself as a leader. I also think you might do a bit of work to get past the idea of narcissism being inherently tied to leadership and inherently bad. As an example, this Harvard Business Review article (from 2004, so maybe the thinking of folks mentioned here has changed) talks about "productive narcissists," who are gifted and creative and get a lot done because of that. You could also read more about bad narcissistic leaders, because maybe what's happened is that you've conflated bad leaders with narcissism.

So, instead of building a skill set, how about being open to learning more about leaders who are competent and talented and who model the traits you'd like to cultivate? And maybe try to unpack some of the negative associations you currently have with leadership.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:32 PM on January 19

So I think there a two issues here. One is what you called skill gaps, working on improving your weak areas and the attendant increase in self-confidence. This is just a matter of practice and/or anxiety treatment. (I would, however, suggest Strengthsfinders to you - the basic idea is not to worry so much about your weaknesses and focus instead on what you do well, as that’s what adds the most value. If you’re Shaq, for example, it’s more productive to spend your time dunking and blocking shots than shooting threes.)

But leadership isn’t just being good at your job. You can actually be pretty incompetent and still be a good leader, which is why companies often hire people with management experience in other industries rather than promote from within.

Some of the most unexpected feedback I’ve ever gotten in my career was when I was 26, in my first job. In an otherwise fairly negative performance review, my manager told me I was a “natural leader”. At the time, I was pretty anti-authoritarian and I saw ambition as just wanting to be in a position to tell other people what to do, which I wanted no part of. But as my manager explained what she meant, it changed how I view leadership. One of the things she cited was that I was constantly organizing lunches for our team. I didn’t think of this as leadership. I just wanted to eat at Chipotle and I figured other people would too, so I would invite others to go with me. Turns out this did a lot to make people feel included, and it boosted morale on our team like crazy. Over time, she noticed, I could leverage the goodwill I’d built up to go against the grain when necessary (low stakes here - I’m talking “I’d rather eat at Panera than Chipotle today”) and people trusted me enough that they’d go along with my suggestions.

Over time, this is how I came to distinguish management and leadership. Management is telling people what to do, leadership is getting them to listen to you. I think the latter is really what you’re asking about. A lot of this is just empathy - how to make people feel included and valued. When you’re running a project, don’t just think about the deliverables. Think about what your team members hope to gain from the project, too. Maybe someone is trying to build a particular skill, maybe someone is hoping to move into management themselves and would like to help delegate. Or maybe you notice somebody doing something that you know a time-saving trick for that you can share with them. Those are the kinds of things that will make people go to bat for you even after unsuccessful projects. To me, that’s what it sounds like you’re asking about.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:49 PM on January 19 [9 favorites]

Ed Schein, of the MIT Sloan School, literally wrote the book on the subject you are asking about: Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust.
posted by ManInSuit at 4:27 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith. This book would could equally be called The Power of Humble Leadership. A really great book which shows you don't have to be an egomaniac to be a great leader.
posted by jacobean at 4:43 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

I have often relied too heavily on delegation out of fear of failure

My first thought was: maybe take on a project which is relatively low-stakes, then ramp up your recklessness and panache, for exercise?

I've gotten the impression that study of failure, and growing from it, is an entire non-fiction literary genre, and yep, there are a whole lot of books with “Failure” in their titles.

As far as low-stakes leadership exercises, I was wondering if getting into team-oriented online multiplayer games, and angling for a leadership role once you have experience, might be an angle. I don't play those sorts of games, though; perhaps others, who do, can comment.
posted by XMLicious at 4:47 PM on January 19

The key to great servant leaders is to forget about yourself and keep the focus on enabling and empowering others. Your example of delegation is a great one, take a look back at the language you used there. Instead of thinking in terms of delegating because *I* don't have as much expertise or because of *my* fear of failure, you could look at delegating projects as a way to give your team members opportunities that will help build *their* skills, help *them* further their career goals, or bring*us* together as a high-performing team. See the difference? It's more of a mindset shift than a skill gap, but it can make a powerful impact on how you show up as a leader.
posted by platinum at 9:03 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a 28 year old who would love to get into UX, I'm always profoundly grateful when I meet senior leaders who are far ahead in their fields but treat me with warmth and grace and are not trying to become gatekeepers and decide whether I'm worth their time or not, and that we have very similar shared values. I consider myself to be of service always, regardless of what position I'm in. Mentorship is a great place to help do that in a way that has very tangible benefits.
posted by yueliang at 9:16 PM on January 19

I never thought of myself as a leader (I've always avoided leading, following, joining, congregating...) but I have things to say now, can change how people and orgs. view their land and how they live ... So I've had to do a stack of reading, and deliberately, consciously put myself in a ton of awkward situations and work on myself. Because of some of the work I do I do get challenged, sometimes aggressively, so some level of assertiveness is needed. Below is (part) of my story, maybe it's helpful.

I do now lead all kinds of things, still not interested in doing the other three tho' so YMMV.

Things that have helped:

Reading Janine Driver's You Say More Than You Think (former ATF field agent). She made me much more comfortable about being a big guy with a serious presence, I think comfortable with my name too. I've worked a lot on body language and deploy myself completely differently depending on context.

Sue Knight's NLP at Work* has been very, very useful (and she's since written one on leadership). She has a very open mind and helped open mine to new situations.

IMO you need to dispense with "servant-leader" type thinking. I'm sure you mean well but that mind-model WILL IMO carry over into language, inflection, posture, everything about you.

re narcissism concerns; you don't sound it (you're asking on here!). I see myself as a catalyst although always in discussion with my clients, so when I feel things are ripe for change I push forward and things happen. I dislike pushing myself out there but worklife necessitates it so I have my full name on my car for instance (and I have always (until recently) hated my surname). My wife has told me that it's 'all about me' when I'm out and about selling ideas - I've found this very helpful. But you have to bring people along (for what I do anyway).

IDK about how your life works but I am completely non-social, but I come alive socially through my work, I really, really enjoy it while I know others in my profession (site planning) who're terrified of social stuff). Friendships outside of my career are too hard to maintain, I think for me if I was normally social I wouldn't have the 'space' for career-related social things, I wonder if this is a thing for you?
posted by unearthed at 9:35 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

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