Shilpa and Ryan are team colleagues in a big global accounting firm. Although Shilpa is more qualified and experienced than Ryan, they are paid the same. Shilpa has been with the firm for five more years than Ryan has, but Ryan made such an impression during his job interview that he was hired at Shilpa’s level despite being less qualified. His appointment is hardly surprising, given Ryan’s interpersonal bravado. His self-regard is apparent not only during job interviews, but also in internal team assignments, client presentations, and networking events.
Ryan speaks more, and louder, than Shilpa does, and he is much more likely to interrupt other people in his enthusiasm to share his ideas, which he loves to present. He’s less likely to qualify his statements with caveats and more likely to speak in bold strokes—something his boss sees as “having vision.” When he and Shilpa present recommendations to clients, Ryan does most of the talking. When clients ask questions, Shilpa is likely to provide a range of options for further research and discussion. If she’s stumped, she’ll admit it. But Ryan never hedges. He usually comes up with a single recommended course of action. And if a client asks him something he doesn’t know, he’ll skillfully dodge the question.
Accordingly, their boss assumes Shilpa is less confident, and consequently less competent. Eventually, Ryan is promoted to a leadership role, while Shilpa remains where she is.
Sound familiar? That’s because pretty much anywhere in the world—at least wherever data was gathered—we associate displays of confidence with leadership potential.
Consider these examples:
Inc.com tells us that “self-confidence is the fundamental basis from which leadership grows” and that “without confidence, there is no leadership.”
According to Forbes, “confidence is always a leader’s best friend.”
The news website Quartz suggests that if only introverts could build some confidence, they might become leaders.
Virgin Group cofounder and business magnate Richard Branson assures us that the “secret ingredient” that allows him to “rule and improve the world” is confidence.
Entrepreneur challenges us to find “an extremely successful person who doesn’t greatly believe in themselves. It’s not going to happen. Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Jordan, Elon Musk and Mark Cuban are just a few highly successful individuals who benefited greatly from this confidence.”5 (These people may have benefited, but what about the much bigger number of confident individuals who never become as successful, or even successful at all?)
I was recently invited to speak to a large global audience of executives who had been selected into a “high-potential” program for female leaders. The topic was gender and leadership. I began my talk asking the audience members to take a quick poll identifying what they considered the most important ingredient of leadership talent according to science. So, the question did not focus on their personal or subjective opinion, but reflected their knowledge of evidence and hard facts. The options included expertise, intelligence, hard work, connections, luck, and confidence. An astonishing 80 percent of the audience chose confidence, which is less important than all the others.