Failure and confidence

Sounds foreboding doesn’t it?  Am I about to write another one of those complaint based posts I seem to excel at? (Yes and no.)

I mentioned previously I’m going to write about the themes that are emerging from my research, and it’s worth noting this is based solely on collection and transcription of data. At this point I’ve made zero attempts at further analysis, be it coding or what not.  That’s to come in the next few months.

The word that jumped out at me right back in interview one (nearly a year ago now) was confidence.  Having the confidence to lead, and importantly, having the confidence to be seen as/labeled a leader.  These are two different things, but equally important.

Most of my subjects are ‘doing’ leadership.  From the outside I can see them managing projects, influencing others and running organisations. So most of them have the confidence to lead. When asked how they achieved this they generally say they had no choice, there was a gap, they filled it, or in the case of organisational leaders, they were thrown in the deep end.  No one said they were ready for the leadership experience… is anyone? They didn’t have time to consider their confidence or their ability, they just did it.

Their relationship to the label leader, however, is contradictory to the experience of leadership.  Most of the subjects are hesitant to embrace the term for themselves, and if they do they qualify it.  “I’m a leader in this way, but not that way” is a common response.  This is where the word confidence is used most often.  Participants say they are not yet confident to be a leader (regardless of what they are actually doing.)  They haven’t yet got the requisite skills, knowledge, abilities.  They haven’t yet earned their stripes. They aren’t yet a manager in an organisation, or they are a manager but not in a large enough organisation with a large enough team.  Maybe soon. Soon I’ll be there.

This makes me think about the instability of identity construction around leadership discussed in Ford, Harding & Learmonth’s book Leadership as Identity. The idealised construction of leadership we keep talking about (in popular and academic press) that no one can actually define means that no one ever feels confident enough to say ‘I am a leader.’  It’s an idealised state we can never reach, but we are pushed to continue the self contemplative journey as part of the neo-liberal economic careers model. (Phew.)

Where I disagree with these authors, and I’ve said it before, is that participation in leadership development programs can (not always, but can) offer an expansive look at leadership and help individuals reposition themselves to the concept of leader. When they see that it is something more than hierarchical, organisational, patriarchal then they sometime see that they are indeed leaders. In this way development can inspire confidence, not detract from it.

Confidence links to failure, or failure links to confidence.  Most creative practitioners have a good understanding of failure, and many of the participants acknowledge the role failure has in the creative process.  This is understood.  But failure in terms of leadership seems to be a harder experience to go through.

I position my research often with an anecdote about my first leadership experience, where I made a complete mess of leading a call centre team.  I joke it pushed me into study of the subject while making me want to avoid organisational leadership completely.  In many ways it is not a joke.

The psychological scars of attempting to lead and not being ‘liked’ as a leader still weigh heavy on me, and many of the participants I speak to.  Is this a female thing? Maybe, I’m not ready to make that call. But a concern about relationships and the interpersonal nature of leadership is one that does impact the shying away from embracing the role.

Those confident in their own position, knowledge, expertise, seem less likely to give a damn as to whether they are liked, or this type of failure. Knowing their reputation will stand for itself. Failure for them is not having a team that wasn’t a friend, failure was judged purely on the outcome of the organisation/project/endeavour.

In my last post I ended with the idea that I have to redefine my notion of failure.  I talking to my husband I said that “I was not used to failing.” In retrospect that’s not actually true.  My last 15 years is littered with failures, but in a different way.  I rarely fail to achieve a goal I set.  In fact I never fail to achieve a goal I set (except maybe to be 5′ 10″*) But I have failed at relationships, a lot. And this has a big impact on leadership confidence (for me.)

Something I need to explore is this relationship between failure and leadership.

*The comparison between failing to be tall/skinny and my perceived failure to break into academia is actually quite important. Both are due to factors potentially beyond my control – genetics, body type, height or intellectual ability and aptitude.

Now I’m off to yoga to explore all these things in one 60 minute package.


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