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Steps to Become a Confident Leader in the Lab

Confidence is an essential ingredient of leadership, but takes time, competence, and help from others to develop

Asked to describe a good leader, people will provide a range of characteristics. Some will describe a leader who is stern and uncompromising, driving an organization to achieve their highest goals. Others will describe a leader who is kind and empathetic; someone who can coach and develop strong contributors. Still others will describe someone who is an inspiring visionary, able to paint a picture of the future that provides a solid touchstone for the achievements of everyone in the organization. While there are as many descriptions of a good leader as there are people asked to provide one, almost everyone will describe a good leader as someone who is confident and competent, and who inspires the same throughout the organization. 

It’s not surprising, then, that most leaders strive to embody those characteristics. However, developing that sense of confidence—and consistently displaying it—is an enormous challenge, especially for new leaders. This article aims to explore the origins of this struggle and provide some steps to overcome the challenge.

Steps to build confidence

It is rare for a leader to move into a new role with the confidence that they know exactly what the requirements and challenges of the role are, and exactly how to tackle them. In fact, if they do truly know all the details, then the role will not help them grow. It is not uncommon for leaders to experience imposter syndrome—the sense that they are an unqualified fraud that will soon be called out. The typical advice is to “fake it until you make it,” or to present an air of confidence regardless of what you feel inside. You may be surprised by how many of your colleagues have faced this challenge. Sometimes, the person presenting the most confidence is the one who is suffering the most from imposter syndrome. In new roles or in times of rapid change, a leader will always struggle with some degree of doubt. What makes someone a good leader is how they respond to these feelings of uncertainty.

“Sometimes, the person presenting the most confidence is the one who is suffering the most from imposter syndrome.”

The first step is to understand what exactly a leader should feel confident about. A common temptation is to have an answer to every question and to have knowledge of every detail about what is going on, not just in your area of accountability but about the business as a whole and even the marketplace that you serve. However, the leader does not have the ability to solve every problem nor the authority to secure every resource or make every decision. A confident leader does not display the arrogance of “I have all the answers,” but the humility to listen carefully. Confidence comes from awareness of the limits of your knowledge and authority, and staying open to new information that could change your perception of any situation. It is this awareness of “there are things about this job/business/market/organization that I don’t even realize that I don’t know” that allows a leader to expand their knowledge and capabilities, and gain the experience to become truly confident. But how do you fill in those gaps while retaining trust from your organization?

Start by doing your homework. Even if you are outwardly expressing total confidence in your understanding of your role, do not assume you already know what you need to know. Get your job responsibilities in detailed writing, and get agreement with your boss that that description fits with their expectations. Next, get agreement on what your deliverables are. Don’t assume that you and your boss are on the same page. Have the discussion. Confidence in knowing your role and objectives is the first step in setting boundaries on expectations within your organization. If the members of your organization know what you control, you will be able to deliver on what they ask, or be able to explain why what they are asking for is outside of your control. This demonstrates a competent leader who inspires confidence since you will not promise things you cannot deliver. 

“Do not fall prey to the idea that the confident leader does not ask questions.”

The next step is to determine what you are going to need to effectively deliver on commitments. Take the time to truly understand what your organization does and the skills and gaps of those within your organization. If the members of the organization feel that their leader understands what they do, how they do it, and the skills and knowledge that they bring to the table, they will have more confidence that you will align your commitments with their ability to deliver. They will also believe that you support them and will fight for their needs. Another important factor is to do your homework to understand how your role interacts with other leadership roles in the organization, and how your organization interacts with, and depends upon, other parts of the business. Learn as much about those other functions and the business interdependencies as you can. This knowledge gives you the tools to promote and defend your organization and get the support you need.

The following step is a difficult one for many leaders—do not be afraid to ask questions. Understand the boundaries of your own knowledge and ask others to fill in the gaps. Do not fall prey to the idea that the confident leader does not ask questions. No one knows everything. An effective technique to improve your own comfort with asking questions is to be willing to answer questions from others. By not assuming that others understand the same things you do, then you will be more aware of the clues they give when seeking help to fill in their knowledge gaps. If you help them in a collaborative, affirming way, then others will be very willing to reciprocate. Ask questions from a position of true curiosity and respect for others’ knowledge. Think of how many times you’ve been in a group setting and someone asked a question that you were hesitant to ask. Be the leader who is confident enough to ask that question. Most of the time, others will be glad you did. Note that asking questions is not just something that new leaders or someone new to a position will do. Conditions change. Technologies change. Markets change. Never stop asking questions; never stop learning. Be generous with your knowledge as well. If you model a willingness to ask questions and learn, your organization will do the same. 

Finally, surround yourself with people who complement your skills and knowledge base. Confidence doesn’t come from having the answer to every question or the solution to every problem, but from knowing how to find the answer. Embrace the humility to know the limits of your knowledge and build out your team with people who can go deeper into those topics of which you have just a basic understanding and appreciation. Then, make sure you defer to their knowledge during decision making. This process is equally important with your peer group. Being able to “speak the language” of different functions doesn’t mean that your knowledge replaces the insights of your peers in those areas of the business. Humility and confidence go hand in hand.

We all want to be seen and appreciated as confident and competent leaders. The pathway to developing that confidence will last your whole career as you face new roles and challenges. Stay humble. Keep learning. Know your boundaries. The confidence will follow.