Using confidence to lead

Three tactics to combat lack of confidence

I started working proposals for a small business directly out of graduate school with no knowledge of federal contracting and about 3 hours of on-the-job-training. Increasing the pressure, 4 months into the job I was managing proposals on my own after the only proposal manager left for extended maternity leave. Despite the odds, I became a successful, confident, and sought-after proposal manager.

During those first 2 years, I often had good reason to not feel confident, but I couldn’t let that hinder my performance. I learned to rely on three tactics to combat those early difficulties:

  1. Exude confidence even when I didn’t feel like it
  2. Be confident, despite my ignorance
  3. Don’t give up power in a conversation

I was unfamiliar with proposals but was expected to manage them, so my confidence was naturally taxed. Initially, I undervalued the skills I accrued teaching writing as a graduate student at Texas State University. It took me a while to realize that managing a classroom, constructing an argument, and giving ad-hoc writing instruction weren’t too far removed from facilitating proposal meetings, vetting a proposal solution, and coaching proposal writers. So long as I prepared as best as I could and spoke with conviction based on my transferable skills, I could exude confidence in meetings and interactions. The more I demonstrated that confidence in my interactions, the more consistent results I saw and the better my team worked with me.

Similarly, leadership expert Karin Hurt describes a women who turned around a call center’s customer service record by re-recording her greeting to radiate confidence and expertise. That recording initiated a transformation for her customers—they responded more positively to her throughout the call, and they expected her to deliver on her promise—which spurred her to prove them right. In the same way, as I practiced confidence with my proposal teams, I found myself working harder to keep up with my image.

Despite finding a wellspring of confidence in my prior experiences and learning to broadcast confidence, I was often faced with phrases, concepts, and problems I hadn’t encountered before. I didn’t always handle these situations with aplomb, but Scott Eblin’s advice to “be confident in your ignorance” appropriately describes my most successful experiences. People respected my leadership when I honestly said I didn’t know the answer and that I would come back to them with a response after I’d found time for reflection or research. Generally, people value honesty, preparation, and consistent follow-up above a leader faking it or skirting around the issue.

Finally, I learned how damaging it is to give up power with my words when I was unsure of a situation. In every conversation and meeting, I wielded power because of my title as Proposal Manager, but it was easy to lose that power when I wasn’t feeling confident. Michael Hyatt identifies three ways we give up power in our conversations:

  1. We undermine our own authority with phrases like “I’m not expert, but…” or “I’m not prepared to speak on this, but…”
  2. We hedge our statements with phrases like “I think” and “I suppose”
  3. We give ourselves an out by saying “I’ll try” or “I’ll give it my best shot.”

These words and others like them were quick to my lips when I wasn’t confident about my perspective or course of action, but I quickly realized that by giving up power in these small, regular ways I lost the respect I needed to get people to rally behind my objectives.

In the end, I realized that lack of confidence only got in the way of using my skills to submit winning proposals. My teams followed my leadership best when I chose to exude confidence—even when confronted with my own ignorance—and when I used my words to conserve power I’d need later to get the job done.

by Julia Quigley

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