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The Benefit of Doubt: What Women Gain from the Confidence Gap

09/02/2015 14:23 | Updated 10 April 2015

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Is confidence an over-rated quality in leaders? Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's book, The Confidence Code, raised some important questions about how confidence affects women. It directly linked low levels of self-esteem to lack of progress. Yet confidence doesn't denote competence - something women often have in abundance - so why is it so integral to our becoming leaders?

Maybe we need to re-think what we understand by confident leadership. "Our current work culture disproportionately rewards overconfidence. Women are urged to be more confident to catch up to men who naturally 'tilt towards overconfidence.' But why are we holding up 'natural overconfidence'--which is just a nice way of saying arrogance without self-awareness--as the standard?" writes Alicia Liu.

In a telling comment from a survey of current CEOs, one remarked that they were riven by "an almost insane combination of extreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, combined with complete humility".

But why are confidence and humility set in opposition? Talking to women in positions of power, I frequently hear something else: a belief that humility is a sign of confidence, and that doubt is a useful check against arrogance. Angela Ahrendts, a senior VP at Apple, has openly cited insecurity as a motivating force in her career. Liu urges women not to confuse 'imposter syndrome' with a "healthy dose of self-doubt".

"In an era where out-size, narcissistic business leaders are treated like rock stars... elevating humility as an essential trait for creative leaders may seem quaint, even a bit anachronistic. Yet, humility and the ability to admit error may be two of the most important qualities a truly creative leader must have," writes Doug Guthrie.

What he calls 'creative' leadership I'd call conscious leadership: one that is highly attuned to the motivations and foibles of those around you. Conscious leaders tend to be very 'present'. They are good listeners and consensus builders. And they also have what brand entrepreneur Laura Haynes calls an 'inner voice' of doubt.

We often couple humility with weakness in western society. But if we define it as something to do with the 'servant leader' mentality, it makes perfect sense.

Humility is the ability to go from leading to listening -- really listening -- and being able to support others, not always being the big 'I am' or letting your ego dictate decisions. It's being centred, not easily flustered and able to deal with issues in a relaxed, but determined way. Humble leaders are able to enter the fray, the conversation or debate without sacrificing their own beliefs and values.

Entrepreneur Liz Jackson of Great Guns is a good example of being both humble and confident. She has a lot of compassion and appears in no way unconfident, but she has no need to trample on others to succeed at what she does. She's very real -- and she goes for it (she's just opened her second business) but she's also comfortable talking about her faith and about how leadership didn't come naturally to her.

Aung San Suu Kyi is another embodiment of humility in leadership. You'd never call her weak, she's certainly committed, but her confidence resides in her humility.

Many women don't get that balance. They may still believe they have to be over-aggressive and hard-edged, or they'll be seen as walkovers. In the race to break the glass ceiling, we risk dismissing or suppressing a natural lack of assurance. Beth Comstock admits it's a hard lesson to learn, and we've probably all met women who persist in talking over everyone else in a bid to demonstrate 'leadership'.

We are also affected by the system and the organisations in which we work. Showing humility and vulnerability can be problematic for women, who may be labelled 'too emotional' or fickle if they seem to change course too often. Women not only avoid self-promotion, but often shun women who aren't self-effacing.

Doubt, again, can help here. To overcome closed-mindedness, you need to understand your own biases, deeply held beliefs and assumptions, argue authors Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny. Doubting everything, they say, helps you develop "a whole new mindset. Creativity is only possible when you are humble about your existing approaches to thinking about things."

It's not always fitting to be the full-on, lead from the front boss. You don't want to allow doubts to become so prevalent that you cannot act decisively. But you need to know when it's appropriate to step back and listen to voices of dissent around you. Cultivating a questioning attitude to leadership may be exactly what women need to break through.

(Image: by kind permission of Sarah Peck and itstartswith.com)