When you get promoted to a higher-level leadership role, it’s exhilarating. Your company has finally validated your talent and trusts in your potential to guide the organization’s future. At the same time, the stakes are higher and you now find yourself in a fishbowl for all to watch how you tackle the new job. This leap in scale and scrutiny tests every new leader’s mettle in many ways, most notably their self-confidence.
In my work as an executive coach helping senior leaders during transitions, I’ve observed the dichotomy of extremes in executive confidence. On one end, many leaders operate with hubris and overconfidence. And on the other, they flounder in self-doubt and hesitation.
Neither extreme is necessarily bad in certain contexts. For instance, despite their flaws, overconfident leaders may show more infectious energy, make faster decisions, and be more persuasive with customers and colleagues. And a recent study showed that overconfident CEOs are more effective when turning around companies after taking over for an overconfident incumbent leader who presided over the performance decline.
Leaders with high self-doubt also can also prove effective in certain situations. Since they are reflective and often self-critical, their insecurity compels them to continuously pursue greater competence and exercise caution in their work. And because they feel their imperfections more deeply, they are likely to be more empathic and inclusive regarding employee concerns, enabling more psychologically safe teams.
But despite overconfidence and excessive doubt each having their upsides, neither approach is optimal for scalable leadership in companies. Hubris and self-doubt are two opposite extremes of confidence but they have one thing very much in common: both are rooted in the same unhealthy fixation on oneself.
And if there is one thing that defines effective leadership as you move from a manager to executive to CEO, it’s that your results become increasingly less about you and more about the attention you place on others so you can deliver through them.
Consider five universal aspects of leadership transitions and follow these strategies to counteract extreme hubris or self-doubt to find the right measure of confidence.
Making first impressions
Due to primacy bias, the way you show up at the outset of your tenure after a promotion can leave a lasting impact, for better or worse. During this time, it’s important for confident leaders to check their self-importance to invite deeper connection and pave the way for future trust.
Many newly appointed leaders relive their past successes as a way of minimizing the discomfort of being in an unfamiliar role. I once worked with a client who frequently began his remarks by saying, “when I was at [last division], here’s what we did.” He believed he was sharing valuable insights, but his new coworkers interpreted it as arrogance and a slight on their performance before his arrival.
On the other hand, some self-doubting leaders tend to detach and avoid the spotlight. While they may prefer to lead from the background, early on such an approach can be misconstrued as secretive and lacking transparency, making it hard for the new team to trust them.
Ask yourself and a trusted colleague how you’re showing up with regard to confidence. Are you overly dominant, dismissive or impatient (e.g.hubris)? Or are you deferential, vague and putting things off (e.g. excessively self-doubting). Then modulate from the extremes. Let go of any urgency to prove yourself, making space for others if you feel overconfident, but claiming your space if you’re stuck in doubt.
In your first team meeting, you can communicate from a more centered place and say, “I’m thrilled to be here. I’m confident that, with our collective talents and experiences, we’re going to learn from each other and achieve great things.” This sets a collaborative tone, showing that you’re neither arrogantly dismissing your team’s worth nor vacillating in your role as the leader.
Finding early wins
It’s crucial to listen and learn from your team, but don’t let your search for understanding delay key decisions. Charging hard with hubris isn’t optimal, but neither is idly waiting for the permission to act.
One of my former coaching clients was a newly promoted CEO who initiated a major acquisition within just the first month of his role. His approach could be seen as excessively confident and risky. But he was also a leader with demonstrable situational awareness and a refined process of decision-making based on collaboration, listening, and shared visioning. These attributes kept him from making unilateral plans that excluded necessary viewpoints and made sure he didn’t operate with hubris.
Conversely, if you’re caught in a cycle of self-doubt, you can similarly leverage collaboration to make better decisions based on broader inputs. Just make sure to be courageous and proactive enough to counteract the inertia that comes with doubt. Say to yourself, “I may not know what the right thing to do is now, but at least I can take the first step toward getting everyone together and establish a clear plan before pulling the trigger.”
Delegating and developing talent
In the first few months of a new leadership role, it can be challenging to think about how best to delegate work given that you’re still getting to know everyone. In addition, focusing on coaching and developing your team for the future may seem less urgent than getting wins on the scoreboard now.
As a result, both overconfident and overly self-doubting leaders mistakenly ignore delegation and development early on, although for different reasons. Hubristic leaders resist delegating out of a belief they are the only ones who can get the job done right. They may also skip coaching their people, expecting the employee to “sink or swim,” often because that’s how they figured it out.
Leaders plagued by self-doubt hesitate to delegate or develop others as well, but out of the fear that doing so will make them appear less competent. Research shows self-doubting leaders also have a bias toward delegating more to other insecure teammates, rather than confident people on their team, which may stall innovation and create inequities in opportunity.
The balanced leader sees both delegation and development as a win-win approach for themselves, their employees, and the organization at large. They select successors and work to groom them, knowing that without building a talent pipeline underneath, no one, including themselves, will advance.
They also co-create opportunities with their teams to help them grow, which removes employee resentment and leader guilt. For instance, you could say to your direct report, “In time, I’d like to rely on you completely to manage that customer. But this isn’t just for my benefit; it’s also an opportunity for you to gain exposure and advance your influence. What do you think?”
It’s hardly surprising that the area CEOs most want help with for their own development is conflict management. As you move up to higher levels of leadership roles, your job entails greater trade-offs and achieving alignment across broader sets of competing stakeholders.
Hubristic leaders by definition view conflict from a decidedly narrow lens. They often run over others in contention with their goals or are simply indifferent and unwilling to engage. In contrast, self-doubting leaders operate with such a wide, ever-changing lens that their self-trust wanes, while they continually seek to appease the loudest or last one to object.
It’s important for both types of leaders to take their attention away from pleasing the players involved (whether themselves or others) and place it on the process. In other words, instead of picking a side and creating more angst, you can at least work together to envision a new path where everyone can leave with something.
When presiding over a conflict, you might say something like, “Any decision here will have its winners and losers if we look at it as a zero-sum game. Let’s sit on the same side of the table and explore what is possible, if not perfect.”
Building long-term trust
During the honeymoon period after a transition, new leaders can be afforded the benefit of the doubt for some missteps. But this period goes by fast. To ensure your legacy as an effective leader, focus on building long-term trust. And the quickest way to do that is through openness to feedback and the ability to adapt.
Leadership roles differ from individual contributors based on one thing: they require the willingness of others to follow them to deliver shared results. So, it’s virtually impossible to lead people consistently without feedback loops that help you gauge whether they are on board with your approach or not.
Yet overconfident leaders often sidestep feedback channels, unable to handle criticism that feels like an attack on their self-worth. Self-doubting leaders, on the other hand, may shy away from feedback loops that reinforce their loud inner critic or create new insecurities to manage.
Given that it’s critical to the job of leadership, establishing feedback channels early is a must for new leaders to prevent derailment. Once you realize you don’t have to agree with the perceptions, but that awareness of them will equip you with valuable insight going forward, you can come to accept it as a necessary part of trust building.
If the feedback continues to be tough to hear, be honest about it. You could say, “I’m struggling to process this because my intentions were different. However, I appreciate your courage in sharing this perspective.” The very act of being candid yet committed to learning from the moment will strengthen their motivation to follow your lead despite the criticism leveled at you.
Successfully transitioning to a higher-level leadership role requires self-confidence, but many leaders display too much or too little early on. By following these strategies you can find the optimal level of confidence to best engage and deliver results through your new teams.
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