How Confidence Can Help You Lead Through Tough Challenges

A woman faces the camera confidently while a team of people work together behind her.

To be a leader today, you must make tough decisions; confidence can help you act. ADP Chief Talent Officer Jay Caldwell breaks down the real definition of confidence, how leaders can cultivate it and how to use it to continue to move forward and inspire their teams.

Confidence, not to be confused with superiority or egotism, is necessary for leaders who want to inspire greater trust, performance and engagement in their teams. As a leader, finding ways to take on tough challenges with confidence can be difficult.

Confidence in leadership can be tricky to define and even trickier to embody - especially for managers who are new to leadership. It can be helpful to define what confidence means at its core and identify what it is not.

"Confidence doesn't mean just bossing people around or being commanding, hyper-controlling or arrogant," says ADP Chief Talent Officer Jay Caldwell. Instead, he explains, "Confidence is simply a belief in your abilities and having the courage and composure to follow through on a challenge or a goal or acting in spite of risks."

In a world that's constantly changing, confident leadership helps organizations know how and where to move forward. Let's examine how leaders can think about confidence and how they can cultivate it in themselves and others.

What is confidence in leadership?

Caldwell's definition of confidence captures some key elements that aim to distinguish it from the archetype — knowing your capabilities and tapping into bravery to get something done. Describing confidence in terms like these could make confidence seem synonymous with self-esteem, but Caldwell draws a specific distinction there.

"Self-esteem is your perception of your own value or an appreciation of yourself," Caldwell says, "and confidence is outwardly focused. It's judged by other people based on their perceptions — the things they can see and observe through your behavior."

For this reason, Caldwell observes, the outward expression of confidence can coexist with internal feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy that would otherwise seem to oppose it. To further foster certainty and clarity, learning to lean on trusted partners can help.

"You can experience those things at the same time because confidence isn't binary," Caldwell says. "It's not that you're either confident or not confident. It can ebb and flow based on the situation and context you're in."

Confident leaders' effects on the team and organization

Why is confidence important in leadership? Authentic confidence can lead to better outcomes. When leaders in an organization are confident, team participation and motivation are often noticeably higher. People also tend to be more open to taking risks and learning from experiences.

"If you're not confident, your credibility is going to be questioned by your team," Caldwell says. "And as a leader — someone who is influencing others on a team toward a common objective — if you aren't displaying confidence in your team's ability to achieve that objective, especially when it's difficult, good luck influencing them to follow you."

Confident leaders can also produce better business results. Because of the way confidence in leadership positively influences others, Caldwell believes it can lead to higher engagement, better team performance and lower turnover, which can help create a culture with the tendency to adopt new ideas and move the organization forward.

"Belief in your team's mission and purpose is critical for maintaining emotional commitment and engagement, and this is where a leader's confidence can influence their team for better or worse," Caldwell says.

It may have big-picture impacts as well. Many studies have aimed to correlate confidence and a better sense of well-being.

"If you have confidence in yourself in a challenging situation, it could reduce your stress," Caldwell notes. "If you can manage your stress well, you reduce your risk of burning out and make absorbing change or reacting to change easier at the end of the day."

The challenge of building confidence in uncertain times

The past few years of pandemic and economic turmoil have challenged and tested business leaders on many levels. As a result, confidence has been shaken.

"Based on all the physical and emotional challenges brought on by the last few years, leaders may be much less confident than they were three to four years ago," Caldwell observes.

Recently, dealing with the difficult conversations that have been forced by legislation and compliance, like pay equity, has created new challenges that new leaders might not be fully prepared for.

But in most cases, this doesn't equate to personal failing. Instead, Caldwell explains, in times of rapid change and uncertainty, it's challenging for leaders to know how to confidently lead their teams and businesses forward. Fortunately, new and seasoned leaders alike can draw on trusted data and insights to make confident choices and drive innovation.

How leaders can foster a culture of confidence

Confident leaders inspire the feeling in those around them, too.

"I believe it's infectious," says Caldwell. "If your leader is exuding confidence, it's something that's going to permeate through your team. Others will see it; they'll believe it; they'll want to follow. And conversely, if you have a leader that's not confident about the goal or the challenge ahead, that's going to permeate and create cracks in everyone's belief that success can be achieved."

Caldwell has practical advice for leaders who want to cultivate more confidence in themselves and their teams:

  • Seek discomfort. Put yourself into new situations or challenges where you can truly grow. This will create more resilience and confidence when faced with new situations in the future.
  • Find trusted partners. Enlist others — and offer your help to them — to analyze your people data, tap into insights and trade ideas to move forward with confident decision-making together.
  • Pay attention to communication skills. "So much of confidence is how you're perceived, and when you're a leader, everybody's watching and listening," Caldwell says, "so you have to pay very, very close attention to your word choice and body language."
  • Ask for what you need, including help. A trademark of confidence in leadership is the awareness that none of us have all the answers. Great leaders know when they need to ask for more information, resources or support to move forward.
  • Be vulnerable and ask for feedback. Caldwell explains that this can show your team you're legitimately confident because you're working to bolster your capabilities and willing to be open about where you need to get better. "Admit your mistakes and be open about when things go wrong," he says.
  • Demonstrate reliability. "Say what you'll do, and do what you say," Caldwell advises, noting that this shapes perceptions. When people can count on leaders to follow through, it helps them feel more confident in their leadership.

Spreading the uplift of confident leadership

Building confidence in leadership, especially when times are challenging, is a crucial step in creating organizations and work cultures that are sustainable, productive, innovative and competitive.

For leaders, confidence can translate into better results, a more engaged team and higher levels of satisfaction. For others, confidence in leadership can be an inspiration and create a safer and more supportive work environment.

Learn more

Work is personal, your talent strategy should be, too. Hiring and keeping your best requires greater people intelligence.

Download our guide: How to Design a People-Centered Workplace