Over the course of over 40 years of studying and working with leaders, I have come to understand that most of us take on new leadership opportunities with mixed emotions. On the positive side, we are excited, eager for our new opportunity. That optimism is almost always counter-balanced with some level of self-doubt. We may be successful in camouflaging this concern, but somewhere in the psyche of newly minted leaders the question creeps in: Can I really do this?
Noted author Laurence J. Peter gave this concern a name. He called it “reaching our level of incompetence”—the diabolical Peter Principle. It is based on Dr. Peter’s observation that the selection of a candidate for a leadership position is most often based on his or her performance in their current role rather than on abilities relevant to their new position.
Although The Peter Principle was published in 1968, its fundamental assertion remains true today. This fact is sufficient to justify a healthy level of self-doubt whenever we take on a new leadership role. My question, then, is how do most leaders deal with their doubts?
What I have found is that a great majority adopt a “NO FEAR” mantra. The lifestyle clothing company that popularized this slogan recognized the distinctly American concept of “rugged individualism” whereby we convince ourselves that we can succeed if we simply do not allow ourselves to fear.
Unfortunately, this attitude feeds a mindset that as leaders we must have all the answers.
This is precisely the wrong strategy for leadership success.
I have often asked my clients, “As a leader, should you be self-confident or humble?” Most answer, “Self-confident,” reflecting the belief that only those who are supremely confident can succeed.
The best answer, however, is BOTH. In other words, this should not be seen as an “either/or” proposition, as if self-confidence and humility are opposites. Indeed, when we stress one over the other, we tend to become blinded by our myopic mindset.
An overemphasis on self-confidence will almost always lead to arrogance and pride—and cause us to ignore the inputs of others. On the other hand, an overemphasis on humility leads to fatalistic self-deprecation that manifests itself in an abdication of decisive leadership.
The prideful leader also naturally becomes a “teller” rather than an “asker.” Renowned author and organizational behavior expert Edgar H. Schein wrote in his book Humble Inquiry that U.S. culture “overvalues telling” in our leaders. He suggests that leaders should employ asking more often than telling, specifically asking questions of employees, customers, vendors, and mentors/coaches regarding the things “to which you do not know the answer…building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
Notice that the first part of Dr. Schein’s suggestion acknowledges that the leader does not have all of the answers. In other words, the fact that they have landed a high position has not suddenly endowed them with all knowledge. This acknowledgement is the humble mindset which all leaders should adopt.
Leaders can, and should, be self-confident in their role, but if they are wise, they will be honest with themselves: they still have much to learn.
The second part of Dr. Schein’s suggestion is equally important. By having curiosity and interest in others, the leader acknowledges he can’t succeed on his own. This leads to another question I have posed to my clients: “Should you be task- or relationship-oriented in your leadership?” The answer again is BOTH.
Dr. Schein noted that Americans are largely task-oriented, believing strongly that success is a function of work accomplished. An overemphasis on this, however, can lead to a tyrannical form of uncaring leadership that is ultimately destructive. On the other hand, a leader who overemphasizes relationships may create an environment of positive feelings while the work fails to be done.
An appropriate mix of task and relationship orientation will keep the leader’s eye on critical outcomes as well as caring for the people who are responsible for creating those outcomes.
The best prescription for leadership success boils down to these six mindsets:
- Approach your leadership role with self-confidence.
- Acknowledge your fears, as well as what you don’t know.
- Humbly accept your need for others.
- Become an Asker. Remember: No one knows everything—and that includes you!
- Stay focused on both the tasks to be accomplished and the people who will accomplish them.
- Care as much about people as tasks.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.