Confidence Isn’t Always Competence – The Power of Humble Leadership

12 February 2023



“I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader—one who knows when it’s time to go.” Humble words from a woman who attracted global admiration. I know I’m not alone in reflecting on Jacinda Ardern’s legacy.

Humility is often cited as a desirable leadership trait. In fact, it’s an attribute of Level 5 leaders in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”. He regards it as impossible to shift to sustained excellence without it. But how actively do we recruit for humility? Or consciously build it into leadership development programmes?

Ardern Has Normalised “Feminine Competencies” in Leadership

I recently listed normalising diversity as one of my key focus areas for 2023. And, rightly or wrongly, we tend to assign skill sets to genders. Ardern’s leadership style incorporated many traditionally “feminine competencies”. By so doing, she has normalised these traits in the leadership arena. She’s proven concepts like kindness and empathy are not incompatible with competence.

We desperately need more role models who bring alternative and complementary skills to the table. So often, women are encouraged to “lean in” at work. But this risks steering them into the same old, well-worn leadership tracks. And we should be aiming for more.

Firstly, mimicry of typically “masculine competencies” seldom reflects authentically. And it usually leaves women feeling alienated, even traumatised. Finally, it denies our organisations (male colleagues included) access to a broader leadership toolkit.

These are some of my tips for changing the gender status quo of leadership competencies.

Tip #1: Don’t Mistake Confidence for Competence

We can be blinded by charisma if we’re too lazy to evaluate talent. We mistake arrogance for strength and confidence for competence. Yet, research shows women are more hesitant to acknowledge their competence and accomplishments. We need to factor this into our P&C processes.

Twenty years ago, Dunning and Ehrlinger’s work exposed a significant gender confidence gap. Their study found no difference in actual performance between genders. However, in self-assessing, men were routinely over-generous. Whereas women habitually underestimated themselves.

Even when men know their limitations, it doesn’t dent their confidence. Hewlett-Packard released reviews of its personnel records that demonstrated this. It found men applied for positions when they met just 60% of the criteria. But their female colleagues only applied if they met 100%.

A Possible Intervention: As part of our D&I strategy at Flight Centre, all senior positions were required to have a 50/50 gender ratio of applicants. If this didn’t occur naturally, the leader concerned had to ‘hunt’ to fill the gap. Additionally, our three-person interview panels had to have at least one woman. It was a policy that required me to hold my ground on more than one occasion. Especially in the beginning, when men were often awarded the positions because they applied for it. But the process resulted in more women being interviewed. That helped showcase talent across the business. And in the end, this led to more women in senior leadership positions.

Tip #2: Self-Awareness Trumps Self-Belief

Interestingly, the confidence gap between men and women narrows with age. Zenger Folkman’s research shows the disparity disappears in the mid-40s. And after 60, women overtake men. (Rightly so, when women were measured as more effective in 84% of leadership competencies!)

When we believe we already know the answers, we shut down discourse. Women’s early lack of confidence may help them develop valuable leadership capabilities. They may be more willing to seek and act on feedback. Thus, they are more likely to admit mistakes and apologise. And more likely to accept input and alternatives to their solutions. Such behaviour develops remarkable resilience over time. But it also helps includes others, giving them opportunities to shine.

Inclusive environments where employees feel valued generate returns for their organisations. In an international Catalyst survey (including Australia), workers report being;

  1. More innovative, the more included they feel. And,
  2. More willing to assist colleagues and achieve workplace goals.

 A Possible Intervention: There’s another gap often apparent in organisations. The misalignment between what Boards and Executive teams believe their culture to be versus the reality their people experience. I’m a big proponent of culture audits. They can be a valuable exercise to pinpoint areas of intervention. And to select those that will yield the best return on investment.

I once worked with a Board that placed high importance on innovation. It was included in the company’s values. And significant incentives were in place to promote it. Yet, the pace of innovation had slowed significantly.

A culture audit quickly uncovered that employees didn’t feel safe making mistakes experimenting. There was such emphasis on success, they inferred failure would be ridiculed. Making the process and failures leading to the eventual successes visible helped change that. Furthermore, it led to discussions that generated improvements to the products being showcased—and strengthened inter-departmental relationships. It became more evident that each contributed valuable different skills and perspectives.

Tip #3: Reward Altruism, Not Self-Promotion

Humble leadership is also characterised by altruism – selfless concern for the greater good. Altruism is the opposite of personality disorders such as narcissism and psychopathy. But ironically, many of our leaders exhibit traits more aligned with these pathologies.

Narcissist self-interest and lack of empathy can be responsible for catastrophic corporate failures—for example, the Enron scandal of 2001. But pseudo-humility can also create a toxic environment in the workplace. This is when leaders purport to be humble but are really acting in their own interests. Our P&C processes must be able to discern the difference.

A meta-analysis led by Yale concludes that both intuitively and deliberately, women act more altruistically than men. Even those women that identify themselves as having more traditionally masculine traits such as dominance, power and independence. But the analysis also points out that women are expected to be more altruistic than men. And that society punishes them if they’re not. So imagine if we demanded altruism from all our leaders.

 A Possible Intervention: We get what we measure. We can’t build a culture of altruism and still measure performance traditionally. So review your incentive structure through an “altruism lens”. Ensure there is recognition for decisions that serve broadly and long-term. And that people aren’t inadvertently penalised for not exhibiting self-promoting behaviour.

Altruism is closely associated with EQ. But, do your leaders have the tools to understand themselves and relate well to others? If not, how can they make decisions that benefit everyone? EQ assessments are a powerful way to increase self-awareness. And an excellent way to better understand your team or organisation.

A Final Word on Empathy and Trust

Occasionally I meet individuals who genuinely struggle with the concept of empathy. (Mostly men, but not exclusively so.) It’s something I promise can be improved with will and effort. But if this describes you, I’d like to suggest you lead with trust.

Humble leaders accept they can’t understand everything. Believe people when they tell you their situation. Trust them to know what they need. Then do your best to provide it.