- Successful leadership isn’t about having complete confidence that you can do the job. You need some amount of self-doubt, too.
- That’s according to Sam Walker, who writes in The Wall Street Journal that the best leaders are often the ones who didn’t want the job in the first place.
- In fact, confidence may be a better predictor of who will put their hat in the ring for a leadership position than who will do a good job once they get it.
A recent Wall Street Journal article by Sam Walker posits that leaders who only reluctantly take the reins of a company, a country, or any kind of team often turn out to be the best leaders of all.
Walker, a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal and the author of “The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership,” shares a number of examples that help illustrate this phenomenon. The most telling is the story of how Dwight D. Eisenhower became US president.
Walker writes that Eisenhower wasn’t interested in running for office – in fact, he’d been entered in the primary by supporters who didn’t have his permission. We all know how this story ends, and Walker also reminds us that Eisenhower had a 65% average approval rating by the time he left office.
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“Too often, leadership is bestowed on the people who crave it most,” Walker writes. “The prevailing view in business” – and presumably, in government as well – “is that the personal and promotional components of leadership are just as important as having a strong résumé.”
Confidence is a better predictor of who will become a leader than who will succeed as a leader
Even top leaders themselves can fall prey to this logic. In 2017, President Barack Obama told George Stephanopoulos that confidence is “probably a prerequisite of the job [of US president], or at least you have to have enough craziness to think that you can do the job.”
Obama wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the reality is more nuanced than he made it seem. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor at Columbia University and the chief talent scientist at Manpower, previously told Business Insider, confidence is a better predictor of who will become a leader than who will succeed as a leader.
That’s partly because if you’re not that confident, you won’t put yourself in the running for a leadership position in the first place – and not everyone has supporters to write their name on the ballot. But once you’ve assumed the leadership role, Chamorro-Premuzic said, “what you really need to have is ability, the right level of skills, the right level of knowledge, the right capacity.”
All this isn’t to say that, if you’re offered a management role at work, you should assume it’s a test of your leadership potential and vehemently reject the position. The point is really that confidence (or overconfidence, as the case may be) can backfire once you’re in office, and that a little self-doubt can go a long way.
It might even be wise to practice your leadership skills before officially accepting the promotion, for example by mentoring someone new on your team. Bharath Jayaraman, a human-resources executive who’s worked at Facebook and Amazon, previously told Business Insider that’s a key step, and that you shouldn’t automatically assume you’re suited to the role.
As Chamorro-Premuzic previously told Business Insider, “once you are a leader it’s probably good to have the capacity to question yourself and a moderate degree of insecurity and self-criticism so that you don’t engage in too much risk-taking.”
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