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How Leaders Can Develop Confidence in Themselves and Their Employees

September 22, 2014
Borderless Leadership

The key to performing well under pressure is no great secret. When leaders have the personal resources to meet (or even exceed) the demands in a given situation, they thrive when it matters most. These resources include unshakable self-confidence, controlling the ‘controllables’, and a focus on what can be gained rather than lost.

But of course there is a darker side. When leaders do not have the personal resources to meet situational demands, they crumble under pressure and wilt when the going gets tough. The body and mind reacts in a panicked and inefficient manner. The mind overthinks, worries, and is unable to function effectively or efficiently. This is when athletes and business professionals ‘choke’. Professional golfer Rory McIlroy’s infamous Master meltdown in 2011 is a perfect example of choking. McIlroy was leading the field when he got to the 10th hole. That’s where, in McIlroy’s words, “things went all pear-shaped” very suddenly, and very badly. He dropped from first place to seventh on one hole. The pressure was too much.

So how can you, as a CEO, develop and maintain your confidence when it matters most and coach your employees to do the same? The answer lies in what we have learned from sport psychology. In the book What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology (Bennion Kearny, July 2014), this is known as a Threat State. People in this threat state perform poorly under pressure.


The business environment is full of demands. Some of these demands are part and parcel of the business culture, but at the same time, some of these demands come from you as a CEO. You have to pressure your staff. You have to place demands on them. This is what helps people to stay motivated and is what pushes people to achieve for your business as well as for their personal growth and development. In other words, demands are not the enemy— don’t waste time lowering demands so that resources can outweigh them. In swimming, for example, a coach does not say, “don’t worry about the race, it will be easy, and no-one cares how you perform.” He says, “This race is crucial, and it will be very tough, but you have the skills and abilities to succeed so focus on what you can do.”


Like the swimming coach, focus on increasing your personal resources, as well as those of your staff, to meet ever-increasing demands. The most important personal resource is an individual’s self-confidence. A professional with self-confidence can slice through pressure like a diamond cutter. The belief that ‘you can’ is very powerful. As Vince Lombardi, two-time Super Bowl Winning NFL Coach, said: “Confidence is contagious—so is a lack of confidence.” You do not want a lack of confidence to spread through your company.It will inhibit decision-making, negotiations, innovation and risk-taking.


As a CEO, it is, in-part, your responsibility to ensure that your staff are able to face tough situations with high self-confidence, believing they can prevail when it really counts. There are simple ways you can achieve this. One of the greatest sources of self-confidence is what ‘people say to us’. You can provide verbal instruction that helps instill confidence in your staff, especially before they undertake a highly demanding and important event—a key investment pitch, a crucial presentation, a game-changing meeting. Many athletes talk about boosting their confidence by focusing on what they can achieve, rather than potential failure.


Remind your staff that they have performed well in the past and, importantly, that they can perform well in the future. Help them to dwell on past success and let this success penetrate their preparation for the upcoming performance. This not only boosts confidence, it also helps them to focus positively on success, rather than negatively, avoiding potential failure. In turn, you cannot underestimate the power of encouragement. Confidence is hugely changeable by the information you are provided or that you provide to your staff. Remind them of poor performances, and they will go into new situations with low confidence, and as a result,  failure is likely. Sport psychology research shows that even if people perform well (objectively) just telling them they did poorly is enough to ruin subsequent performances. So encourage them, remind them how good they are, and specifically, get them to take previous success into new situations.


Lastly, lead by example. Confidence is about thoughts and behavior. Get your staff to think confidently not only by encouraging them, but by showing them what confidence looks like. Act confidently around them at all times—you are a role model—and call up in your mind those people who you rely on as role models. Don Shula, former NFL cornerback and coach, famously said, “My responsibility is leadership, and the minute I get negative, that is going to have an influence on my team.” He recognized that the attitude of the leader rubs off onto the athletes—just as your attitude as a leader rubs off on your staff.

Confidence is contagious—absorb it from and transmit it to those around you. The more you act confidently, the more they act confidently. Acting confidently contributes to feeling and thinking confidently. In doing so, both you and your staff will operate to the best of their abilities and your organization will flourish.

By Dr. Martin Turner and Dr. Jamie Barker


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