Where does confidence come from? And why can we be competent and confident yet still feel anxious? How can we call on confidence when we need it and simultaneously calm our nerves?
Most of us have observed those who exude confidence but are short on competence. They blag their way through tasks or meetings without care or concern. These are the charlatans (or idiots) who lack substance but know how to bluster with gusto.
Then there’s the one who doesn’t care what people think of them and says what’s on their mind. They speak above their station and don’t care who they hurt as they climb up the pole which is made greasy by their own hands. Their arrogance speaks of a negative and entitled attitude.
Others are competent – highly competent – but a lack of confidence stops them from getting started. And then their moment is gone. Overtaken by the buffoon taking centre stage. The one hogging the airspace.
Or the person with just the right level of confidence who articulates their thoughts with grace and presence of mind, fully aware of the impact of their words. This person starts to emerge as the leader because when they speak, others listen, agree, and follow. What did they do to reach that level of confidence and competence? Here are a few strategies:
Preparation and Practice.
Displaying confidence and competence with humility and grace is an art form and comes more naturally to some than others. However, we can all improve in this area through preparation and practice. Taking time to think about a meeting or a task or a conversation beforehand can pay dividends. Anticipating what might be raised and forming thoughts and actions as to how you might respond or contribute or make it happen can start building confidence. Practise talking out loud and reducing but not eliminating your “Umming” and “Erring”. Too many and people might question your competence. Too few and they might think that you are too polished and lack integrity (Hindmarch, 2021).
If you are good at visualising, then imagine yourself dealing with the task at hand. For example, if it’s a meeting or an event of some sort, can you see yourself there? Can you visualise yourself expressing a view or walking up to the podium with calm, measured steps? Not too fast. Not too slow. Walking tall. What are you saying? What tone of voice are you using? Visualise yourself catching people’s eyes. Let them see that you know what you are talking about and that you are not afraid to take questions.
A group photograph that included Arnold Schwarzenegger was taken when he was a young man. In a later interview, he was asked why he looked so confident, even in his youth. Schwarzenegger replied that he always had a strong vision of where he was going and what his future self would look like (Otávio, 2016).
A leader who listens first and speaks later often has the edge over those who jump in to grab the limelight. For some people, the opposite of talking is . . . waiting to talk. Their only goal is to get their point across. But if you have listened, really listened to everyone else’s view then you will understand where the conversation is going, and you are then poised to summarise or paraphrase or acknowledge others as you share your view, or your perspective, or your logic, or how you feel about the issue.
Knowing Our Values
Allow your confidence to be underpinned by your values. Leaders who have spent time capturing and clarifying their values are able to speak from a place of confidence, authenticity, and humility. They’re not trying to curry favour or manipulate others to get them on their side. Nor are they trying to undermine or shoot people down. Their intentions are honest and honourable. Their aim is to make a difference, even if that impairs their own position. Paradoxically, confidence can emerge from this honest vulnerability because at that moment we are ourselves. If you know who you are, you can speak from both your head and heart. When you articulate coherent thoughts that are aligned with your values, there is consistency that people inherently understand and respect. The confidence that they have in you will in turn reinforce your own confidence.
Affirming Our Strengths and Questioning Our Doubts
Positive self-talk can help build confidence. Reminding yourself through, for example, a SWOT analysis that you have the strengths and opportunities to overcome your weaknesses and any threats can pave the way to confidence. (Mind Tools Content Team, 2022). You’ve done all the work so why not follow through? Challenge your doubt with questions: What have you got to lose? What is the cost of staying in your comfort zone? Of not stepping in or speaking up? What’s the worst that can happen? Will it matter a year from now? How will you feel about yourself if you don’t give it your best shot? Taking small, calculated steps towards learning a new skill, or speaking up all help to boost confidence.
Confidence can also come from surrounding ourselves with positive people who support and encourage us: a mentor or sponsor or line manager or the Chair of the Board. All we sometimes need is someone in our corner, the person who sees that we have what it takes and is inspired to join us. Our First Follower (Sivers, 2010).
Dealing with Nerves
Even after all of the above, we can still feel nervous before or during the moment of impact. Why so? We feel confident and competent, and we’ve done all we can to prepare, so why might we still feel anxious? The answer probably lies in the fact that we care. We still care about it all going horribly wrong despite our best efforts and anxiety is of course a master at talking down self-confidence. The dichotomy is that confidence and nervousness are two separate emotional states that can coexist. It’s therefore worth reminding ourselves that our nervousness doesn’t necessarily mean that we are low in confidence. The trick is to manage our nerves whilst maintaining our confidence and one of the best ways to achieve this is through deep breathing. Focussing on the breath. Sending a signal to the brain that we are calm and in control (Dver, 2023). Other strategies include Yoga, meditation, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) to relax muscles throughout the body (Sutton, 2018).
And if you are still feeling anxious, remember this advice from Nelson Mandela, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”
Dver, A. (2023). Can confidence and uncertainty coexist? [online] www.americanconfidenceinstitute.com. Available at: https://www.americanconfidenceinstitute.com/blog/can-confidence-and-uncertainty-coexist [Accessed 18 Apr. 2023].
Hindmarch, S. (2021). How Umming and Erring in a speech can improve your believability.: Partners With You. [online]: Partners With You. Available at: https://partnerswithyou.co.uk/how-umming-and-erring-in-a-speech-can-improve-your-believability/ [Accessed 18 Apr. 2023].
Mind Tools Content Team (2022). MindTools | Maintenance. [online] www.mindtools.com. Available at: https://www.mindtools.com/amtbj63/swot-analysis.
Otávio (2016). Arnold Schwarzenegger on confidence. [online] Mundo de Otavio. Available at: https://mundodeotavio.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/arnold-schwarzenegger-on-confidence/ [Accessed 18 Apr. 2023].
Sivers, D. (2010). Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy | Derek Sivers. [online] sive.rs. Available at: https://sive.rs/dancingguy.
Sutton, J. (2018). Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): A Positive Psychology Guide. [online] PositivePsychology.com. Available at: https://positivepsychology.com/progressive-muscle-relaxation-pmr/.