The Person in the Mirror

Self-confidence can make the difference between a manager and a leader.

Sure, some animals can smell fear, but can your employees smell yours? Managers with strong self-confidence are better able to listen and lead, and are more likely to develop the kind of command presence that is most effective in the workplace.

Timothy Bednarz, author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011), studied and cataloged the common attributes of 160 influential American leaders over 235 years. Among the similarities he discovered was a deep sense of confidence, which encouraged these leaders to take their first steps toward greatness and to pick themselves up when they hit bumps along the way.

There are dozens of books and articles available on building self-confidence, but Bednarz says the initial focus must be on developing self-belief. "This implies knowing without a doubt that you can do it, no matter what you realistically set your mind to do," he says. Henry Ford was such a strong believer in people with this sort of outlook that he "would hire workers who didn't understand the meaning of impossible and would keep pushing the limits of their imagination."

According to Bednarz, self-belief fuels the strong sense of optimism that leaders need to take the risks that jump-start their careers. He quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying: "optimism is essential when trying to do anything difficult, because difficult things often take a long time. That optimism can carry you through the various stages as the long term unfolds. And it's the long term that matters."

It also allows leaders to overcome the adversity and failure that inevitably follow initial risks. John Chambers of Cisco apparently held strong to his belief in himself and the company, even during a difficult period when revenues were collapsing. Managers in the company indicated that his optimism that Cisco would "come out of the bust stronger" was infectious.

According to Bednarz, almost all the leaders he researched experienced a prolonged period of adversity, disappointment, discouragement and failure early in their careers. But their self-confidence enabled them to prevail during those difficult times, which ultimately defined their character, shaped their vision and values, refined their critical thinking, and established their legitimacy as a leader.

Jack Griffin, author of How to Say It for First-Time Managers: Winning Words and Strategies for Earning Your Team's Confidence (Prentice Hall Press, 2010), writes that self-confidence comes from knowledge: from knowing your job, knowing your facts, knowing the basis for your own decisions and, at least as important, knowing what you don't know.

"Intelligent self- assurance, a key to creating credibility, is built on the bedrock of solid knowledge," Griffin writes. "There is no substitute."

Self-assurance also helps managers listen and learn from critics instead of shouting them down, and invite criticism by making clear they are open to all points of view, Griffin says. This is vital to earning trust.

The takeaway message for government managers: If you want to motivate your team to perform better, then it first might be worth spending a moment to make sure you believe in yourself.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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