Archive for April, 2011

Be Confident

04th April 2011

This post is one in a series where I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. If that baffles you (and if you haven’t read the rest of the series, why wouldn’t it?), you can read my explanation here. You can find earlier posts in the series under the ‘How to be a Leader’ category in the navigation bar to the left.

3. Q: How to be a leader? A: Be confident

Montaigne had the most extraordinary upbringing. His father, Pierre, was a bluff, noisy character who had been a soldier and seems to have been the most physical of men. He charged around the family wine estate starting many projects and finishing some. He was known for random acts of athleticism: apparently his vaulting onto a horse was a marvel well into his sixties. The father wanted something different for his son, however. If his life was characterised by the physical, he wanted young Michel’s to be a life of books and learning and he set about making that happen in two remarkable ways.

A-two-week-old-newborn-ch-001It wasn’t unusual for the children of nobility to be wet-nursed, as Montaigne was, but it was unusual for the new born Michel to spend up to two years living full time with the peasant family of the woman who nursed him. Pierre’s thinking was to prepare Montaigne for his life as a nobleman by making him intimate with the ‘people of the lowliest class’ whose futures he would control when he inherited the estate. The result in the adult Montaigne was a feeling of being both ordinary and unique at the same time, of being ‘nothing special’ compared to his subjects but being aware that the feeling was special compared to his noble peers. Then, on his return to the chateaux from the hovel, Pierre ruled that the infant Montaigne would hear, speak and read nothing but Latin. In Renaissance France, the classics were the source of all learning and there was a belief that a lack of ease or naturalness with the languages was an impediment to capturing the full benefit from the texts. By hiring a Latin tutor to be with the infant Montaigne and by not allowing himself, his wife or any of the servants to speak in his presence, Pierre made sure that the child’s first language was Latin, something that sent him to school four years later as some sort of prodigy. Even for the time these measures were considered extreme but what Pierre was trying to do was instil an unconscious competence in his son that would help him in two important aspects of his future. Perhaps what he also did was to develop a self-reliance and instictiveness in Montaigne that were equally important.

Sarah Bakewell doesn’t talk about Montaigne’s confidence but she does talk about the circumstances that he was born into as being one of the keys to how he lived his later life. That may very well be right. Rather like the research demonstrating that success in Ice Hockey comes through being born at the right time of year to be older and bigger than your school year group, the thing which most catches my eye about Montaigne’s early years is the confidence and belief which came from his father’s engineering of his education. Confidence is that most slippery and necessary of a leader’s virtues. Confidence lets you try new things and not be destroyed when they fail. Confidence will get you promoted: organisations like positive and ‘can do’ types more than they like shy or retiring ones. But too much confidence leads to the sort of arrogance that will stop people following you or the sort of complacency that sucks you into errors. Too little confidence makes people wonder if you know what you are doing and leads to the sort of timidity that stops you achieving. The art must surely be to find just the right amount of confidence and put it to work for you every day but I don’t see much in the practice of organisations to help me to know how to do that.

In my own career I worked with a young woman, let’s call her Kay. When I first came across her, Kay was in a mundane administration role clearly below her CV but not her performance. She came over as spiky and difficult, often putting in the minimum effort and being reliably average in everything she did. A reorganisation saw her selected out of her job and reluctantly shuffled over to a small new team dealing with customer complaints – quite possibly the worst place imaginable for someone with her track-record of cynicism. When I took over responsibility for the team, her manager, Dave, and I discussed her and wondered whether she was in the right place. We chewed our pencils over what answers there might be for Kay and we both undertook to get to know her better. What we found was someone surprisingly shy in offering the opinions that we sensed she held. We found someone whose experience of the business was that volunteering ideas and offering extra effort were routes to exploitation, not advancement. We found someone who was frustrated by her status and angry that those with less ability seemed to be more favoured. I guess what we really found was that Kay had fallen out of love with her employer, lost faith in her managers and had no belief in her ability to change her situation.

Dave did a great job with her. Through coaxing and encouraging, through giving Kay opportunity to contribute and through persistence in dealing with her reluctance, Dave charmed away the shell of her difficulties and found the talent underneath. He gave her difficult things to do and she responded with quality work. He publicly backed her when she needed it and we both fought her corner at salary reviews. Over time we were able to promote her out from under Dave’s wing. She built a team of her own and we found the woman written off as cynical and spiky a few years previously now inspired loyalty and energy in her reports. Kay had become a high potential and high performing young manager who was on the radar of the company’s seniors. She was in the succession plan, her future was being discussed and the business was investing in her.

But she wasn’t confident. Dave’s care had altered her behaviour in a way which was entirely consistent with the training manual but she’d simply replaced a set of unsuccessful behaviours with a set of successful ones. As I began to work more closely with her I saw that the core of Kay was still a lack of confidence and that this was holding her back, making her conservative, reducing her horizons. She believed in her ability and intelligence. She believed in her managers and had enough belief in the business now. What she really didn’t believe in was ‘herself’ and I didn’t know how to help her fix that.

Karl Weick tells the story of a platoon of soldiers lost in the Alps during the Second World War. Presumed lost in a snow storm, short of ammunition and food, they nevertheless find their way back to camp though following an NCO with a map in his pocket. Only when they return from this near-impossible task does it become apparent that the map is the wrong one. It covers the Pyrenees, not the Alps. Such was their confidence in the map that it was irrelevant that it covered the wrong area. What was relevant was their belief in the map, not it’s accuracy. Weick uses this story to identify a fault in organisations – mis-attributing success to a strategy or plan in the way that the soldiers did with their map. He argues that it is the actions of individuals, not the brilliance of their plans which drive success. The literally tens of thousands of published self help books repeat this pattern – make people believe in a plan and their actions will make it come true whether the aim is to make a million, run a marathon or manage a team. Feeling good will make you do well. Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes the pillars of organisational confidence that build a systemised approach to confidence inside the firm, a sort of institutionalised way of fostering belief. Antony Robbins is even more blunt: ‘practice confidence by using it consistently and you’ll be amazed at the dividends it reaps in every area of your life’. The message seems to be that investing in a prescribed set of actions will develop a sort of ersatz belief because the real thing is too tricky and time-consuming to acquire. To a greater or lesser extent it seems that everyone is selling a form of self-deception to cultivate confidence. A kind of flood-plain house building programme. A sort of victory of optimism over substance. Oliver Burkeman cites psychotherapist Albert Ellis on the related subject of self-esteem saying the problem with rating your view of yourself in relation to success in your job, in your relationships or in the size of your bank balance is that your view of yourself will crash when it goes wrong. Rate your ‘performances, deeds and acts’ if you wish, he says, but not your whole self.

Philosophers have something to say about that. Existentialists describe the freedom to choose the selves that we are and our capacity to lie to ourselves and others about who that really is in a way very close to the idea of manufactured confidence, but they also concern themselves with ‘existential truth’:  the sense in which we can know our true selves under the layers of our own creation. Sartre says ‘Being is knowable. And this does not mean at all that Being is rational’. In other words there is another ‘self’ under the self-delusion, an instinctive one that Nietzsche first called ‘authenticity’ and which Heidegger described as the process of becoming what we are, of recognising our own significance as individuals and the relative insignificance of the world. Although the marketers have temporarily stolen the word, I like the idea that true confidence comes from authenticity in the way the Existentialists described it, in the way that Alan Sillitoe describes it:

‘..I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world and knowing it would be no different ever, no matter what I felt at odd times, and no matter what anybody else tried to tell me’.

So for Kay, no matter how successful she had become as a manager, confidence would come through authenticity. For her, that meant doing something else: she is now a successful conservationist.

For those that aspire to leadership, I say be confident. But be aware that confidence can only really come, as it did for Montaigne, from being true to yourself. Just because your organisation can teach you how they want you to behave doesn’t mean they are right: faking it is not an option.