The Confident Leader

“One definition of leadership: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and 
the character which inspires confidence.” 
Bernard Montgomery

Many years ago, I heard Todd Whitaker suggest that the greatest gift teachers can give their students is the gift of confidence. The same holds true, perhaps, throughout the school community: the greatest gift principals can give teachers and the greatest gift superintendents can give principals is also the gift of “confidence.” Successful students, teachers, and principals are, indeed, confident people. Moreover, I do not know a single successful leader who I would not describe as a confident leader. At the same time, these very same successful leaders are also extremely humble people. At first glance, being noted as “confident” and “humble” might strike some as just a bit of a contradiction, but the more I ponder on this apparent contradiction, the more I believe they often go hand-in-hand.

The difference lies in the subtle distinction between confidence and self confidence. I know many outstanding leaders who are confident leaders and who also experience moments of self doubt, nervousness, and uncertainty about their leadership capabilities or decision making. This is not only normal, but also a laudable characteristic of leaders. These are real human beings who struggle with real problems and reflect on these problems continuously as well as their own abilities to work through them along with the help of those they lead. Ultimately, of course, such leaders push through these moments of self doubt and project an aura of confidence when leading others. What helps them push through these inevitable bouts of questioning is not so much self confidence, but their confidence in the work itself, or their mission as a leader. The very best leaders I know may experience moments of self doubt, but they never question the importance of the mission or their confidence in achieving the vision of the classroom, school, or district they are leading. This sense of confidence they project to others comes across not so much as self confidence, but, rather, confidence in their belief that--with everyone pushing in the same direction--the mission must be fulfilled and the vision will be achieved. We admire--and follow--leaders who are confident about the mission more than they are about themselves. Of course, deep down, many of these same leaders who regularly question themselves do indeed possess a great deal of self confidence and do firmly believe they can help others grow and help the organization succeed. As leaders, however, they subordinate in importance any confidence in their own abilities to their confidence in the work and the ability of others to achieve great things.

In Good To Great, Jim Collins describes varying levels of leadership proficiency culminating in “Level 5” leaders. An important characteristic of such leaders is what he terms the Yin and Yang of personal humility and professional will. These are leaders who are modest, channeling their ambition into the organization rather than themselves, yet who demonstrate an unwavering resolve to do whatever necessary to produce the desired results. In today’s Chicago Tribune, I noted an article by David Haugh in which he shares the five stages of being a major-league baseball player according to Joe Maddon, manager of my

beloved Chicago Cubs. Although perhaps not as familiar as the work of Jim Collins, there are parallels to leaders of companies as well as leaders in schools. In Maddon’s hierarchy, "Level 1" players are just happy to be in the major leagues. Perhaps Level 1 school leaders are also simply happy to have earned their first teaching or administrative position. At Level 5, however, all these players want to do, according to Maddon, is win. It is no longer about money, fame, mere survival, or themselves; it is simply about winning. Confident school leaders are similarly laser-focused on “winning,” i.e., fulfilling the classroom, school, or district mission and achieving the vision by producing the best possible results for the students they serve. Confident leaders know it is never about them, but never lose sight of the end goal and always project an aura of confidence in the abilities of those they lead to get there.

When I served as principal of a middle school in Georgia, many teachers throughout the school displayed and regularly reiterated what we called our three critical messages that we first learned about from Jon Saphier: 1. The work we are doing is important. 2. You can do it. 3. I will not give up on you. Confident leaders believe passinately in the work they are doing. Confident leaders instill in others a sense that, together, the work can and will be accomplished. Confident leaders never give up on themselves or others in striving to fulfill the mission and achieve the vision. Leading with confidence--in the work, rather than ourselves--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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