Self-Confidence and Leadership Development

I’ve been posting a lot about the importance of humility.  But like anything, humility may have its downside, especially for women.

I recently read a study on Leadership Awareness and Peer Feedback by Margarita May, Markia Kakarika and Juan-Carlos Pastor, all of the Instituto de Empresa Business School.  They studied MBA students working in groups who received peer feedback over a six month period. Both the men and women had a similar self-assessment of their leadership abilities (self-confidence, self-management, interpersonal understanding and behavioural flexibility) at the beginning of the study. After receiving peer feedback, the women reduced their self-assessment of their leadership capability significantly more than the men did. In other words, women more quickly and completely aligned their views of their own ability than did men.

After the first feedback women assessed themselves as having  less self-confidence, self-management, interpersonal understanding and behavioural flexibility than did men. At the second feedback measurement, assessed themselves as having lower self-confidence and flexibility than the men assessed themselves.

This is consistent with the theory of female humility as compared to male hubris.  That is, women are less likely to see themselves in an inflated way compared to how others see them, once they have received feedback. So far good news, in that humility is an important part of effective leadership. 

Here is the problem as I see it.  We all want to follow leaders who show confidence. While humility may be a valuable trait, when given a choice between humility and confidence in a leader, we’ll choose confidence. If women don’t assess their own confidence highly, this puts them at a disadvantage to men, who do assess their own confidence highly.  Men may be delusional about their own abilities and less susceptible to feedback, but their delusions have kept them in leadership positions.

This study has all kinds of limitations, cultural and situational. It might not apply to the world outside of business schools. That said, it leaves us with yet another conundrum. How do we develop leadership confidence in women, without losing their humility? How do we encourage men to have a more realistic self-evaluation?  Should we even try?


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