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Why a Balance of Self-Confidence,
Self-Esteem, and Empathy is Crucial for Leadership

See also: Developing Confidence

Whether they'll admit it or not, most leaders have a lot to learn. Unfortunately, many become fixated on their own narrative rather than driving their teams to succeed. As a result, over half of them fail.

Given the training (or lack thereof) for most leadership roles, it's not difficult to see why: around 60% of leaders have never had a formal mentor. This means that the majority of them have to find their own footing rather than following an example. Some have the self-confidence needed to rise to the challenge, while others aren't as successful.

But what makes a leader successful? Self-confidence is key, but that's only one ingredient. Some have a natural ability that allows them to grow into the role with ease, while others struggle to determine where they're going wrong.

A successful leader needs the right balance of self-confidence, self-esteem, and empathy to take their team to the next level. It takes more than simple charisma, coincidence, or luck-of-the-draw. And it definitely takes more than the proverbial "iron fist" to get things done.

No matter where you're at in the leadership scale, you can strengthen your abilities by focusing on these key areas. Keep reading to learn why a balance of self-confidence, self-esteem, and empathy is crucial for leadership.

Why Many Leaders Fail

Many leaders fail because they're unwilling to work on themselves. One survey found that only around1 in 10 individuals had the natural talent to become a successful leader all on their own. The rest rely on trial and error, sometimes getting stuck in the process.

When examining the "trial and error" it takes to develop great leadership skills, the "error" part is what carries the most educational value. So let's take a look at one of the most common errors amongst bosses today: focusing on the "me" rather than the "we".

We see this toxic mindset manifesting in a number of situations, such as the leader taking all the credit for the work of the team. Or the leader failing to recognize their employees that go above and beyond. Both of these can demotivate anyone from straying too far beyond the bare minimum.

Another thing we see a lot of is bosses refusing to entertain the input of their employees. This "my way or the highway" mentality is actually quite problematic.

What you're doing is communicating to your team that they don't matter. You're saying your organization's success doesn't depend on their contributions. While you're busy focusing on your own vision, you're losing your team in the process.

Consider this: one survey found that over a third of employees cited a lack of recognition as the number one reason they'd consider leaving a job. Most leaders aren't doing this on purpose: either they have the empathy to realize their employees' need for success, or they don't. As it turns out, this empathy is crucial to the success of their leadership.

Empathy: What It Is and Why Every Leader Needs It

Empathy is an innate human characteristic that enables us to work harmoniously with others. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of those around you. With this perspective, the chemistry between an empathetic person and those around them naturally grows.

As a leader, this dynamic is between you and your employees. To perceive how successful (or unsuccessful) your direction is, you'll need to recognize the effects it has on your team.

To start, you'll need empathy to prevent yourself from coming off as crass or uncaring to your employees, or worse: humiliating them or making them feel small.

For example, let's say an employee makes a mistake that costs you time, money, or a combination of the two. A leader lacking empathy will see nothing but the error. They criticize in an unproductive manner, leaving the employee feeling resentful, frustrated, and embarrassed.

An empathetic leader is able to recognize why the employee made the mistake. It could have been a lack of judgment, foresight, or even a lack of physical needs being met (e.g., sleep, stress, hunger). A great leader takes all of this into consideration, guiding the employee in a better direction rather than berating them. They also take action to correct the situation, whether it's further training, clarification, or even just allowing a day off to relax.

What's more, empathy will guide a leader to predict the most successful methods for directing their teams. Just as no two people are alike, no two teams are alike, and a true leader knows the right way to handle their individual team. As a result, their people feel needed, appreciated, and, most importantly, heard.

Empathy: What It Isn't

Empathy involves the innate power to care about others. It involves recognizing thoughts and feelings, as well as the individual human experiences motivating them. This quality makes for strong leadership, as it allows a leader to "level" with their employees and keep them in a positive mindset.

What empathy isn't, however, is just "being nice" for the sake of being nice. We've seen being "too nice" as a tragic flaw in a number of leaders. Or, more commonly, as a tragic flaw which prevents someone from becoming a leader in the first place.

Effectively communicating with your team doesn't have to mean sugar-coating things to spare feelings. In fact, great leaders aren't going to be considered "nice" as a primary adjective. Instead, they know how to communicate without being abrasive or demotivating: in other words, they know how to be constructive in any situation.

Leading with Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Along with empathy, a successful leader must have the right amount of self-esteem and self-confidence in order to take their team far beyond its potential.

It's crucial, however, that you balance this with self-awareness. Many of us are taught that, as long as you're feeling good about yourself, no one else's opinion matters. When you're leading others, though, their opinion of you does matter.

To stay in check, you must be observant of how you are being perceived professionally. While your leadership tactics might make sense to you, they won't be effective unless others view them in the same favourable light.

Again, empathy ties into this concept. While you can have your own high opinion of your leadership skills, you also need to be able to tell if your team feels the same way.

After all, you're not just leading yourself. You need the approval of your team to ensure they stay motivated, helping everyone succeed long-term.

What a Lack of Self-Confidence Will Do to Leaders

A leader is an influencer, and you can't get others to follow you unless you have self-confidence. If you have a moment of self-doubt, your team is bound to pick up on it. As a result, they'll be less confident in following your direction.

Self-confidence is the driving force that leads you to make decisions that empower your team. Regardless if they're the "right" decisions, you'll still be able to handle the fallout and come out on top.

This "on-your-feet" type of thinking happens in an instant. There's no time for indecision; a great leader makes a "one and done" decision with no afterthoughts. No matter the outcome, they work with what they have, empowering their teams to do the same.

Becoming a Great Leader

Great leaders have an enormous effect on the quality of their team's professional lives, as well as the company culture in their organization. Company culture, as we've seen time and time again, has a major impact on a company's success.

Unfortunately, many companies (and leaders) are failing to foster a positive company culture. Generally, employees are more often unhappy with their positions than fulfilled by them. Given that research has proven happy employees are more productive, this can deeply affect a company's bottom line.

For example, over half of full-time workers in the United States are dissatisfied with their jobs, or even downright resentful of them. This doesn't come down to a simple issue of money, either. A majority of the time, it's because of the boss.

When an employee is unhappy with their job, this tends to have a number of adverse effects on a business. For starters, an unhappy employee can bring down the morale of the entire team, often griping at every opportunity and creating a toxic environment for everyone else. Or, they can quit altogether, which puts a strain on the progress of the team as a whole.

A successful leader is measured not just by what they achieve with their team, but by the overall employee retention in their team as well. In other words, if a leader is constantly needing to replace their team members, then this is an indicator of a much bigger problem. To keep your team happy, you need to empower them with self-confidence, and this can't be done without the empathy to understand them on a personal level.

Self-Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Empathy: A Recipe for Success

Now that we've examined these qualities individually, let's take a look at how self-confidence, self-esteem, and empathy all work together to create a recipe for exceptional leadership. We're calling this a "recipe" because a perfect balance is required in order to be successful.

For example, a leader must be self-confident. Yet too much confidence can lead to that "me, not we" culture that often leads employees to run for the hills. An overly confident leader will consistently make the wrong decisions because they don't have the sight to recognize otherwise.

Adding to that, the right proportion of self-esteem is also needed for the mix. Just like self-confidence, it's possible to go overboard, though: a surplus of this quality can lead to arrogance, which obviously has a negative impact. Arrogance, as we've seen, can result in tunnel vision that will ultimately hinder the team's progress.

Finally, the last ingredient needed is empathy. A great leader leads with the empathy required to build up and recognize the personal strengths of their teams. This empathy guides the leader to make their employees feel valued and personally fulfilled.

So- How Do You Improve These Leadership Characteristics?

We've described empathy as an "innate" characteristic, but there are ways to build it up, even if you don't feel like it's one of your natural strengths.

The solution involves making a conscious effort to recognize the feelings of others. Likewise, it involves taking a moment to analyze situations before reacting to them. While we can't force this natural characteristic to manifest within ourselves, we can always foster the wisdom and awareness it takes to do better.

As for self-confidence and self-esteem, these also can't be perfected overnight. Again, some people will naturally have more of these qualities than others, but that doesn't mean that we can't work to develop them. With consciousness and self-awareness, anything can be improved.

Improving one's self-esteem and self-confidence is a matter of looking inside, not demanding perfection but accepting what is there and realizing that we always have the ability to manifest the skills we desire. Once we release a little bit of the pressure we've put on ourselves, we're in the perfect position to grow.

Leading with Self-Confidence, Self-Esteem, and Empathy

A few key ingredients are needed for successful leadership and, despite what you may have heard, an iron fist isn't on that list. Instead, focus on strengthening your character with the self-confidence, self-esteem, and empathy to make great decisions and empower those you work with.

Self-confidence and self-esteem are both necessary to gain the respect of the team, while empathy prevents the ego from taking over. Once you find the perfect balance, you'll be surpassing your previous potential for leadership. Now that you know the key characteristics of great leadership skills, you can start working on honing these skills in your career today.

To learn more, check out our A-Z list of leadership skills.

About the Author


John is an expert communication trainer, helping well over 2000 happy students learn how to communicate more effectively with their teams and improve their public speaking skills, helping sales professionals communicate more effectively with customers and prospects, and consulting and assisting corporate professionals to get the most out of their negotiations. Get in touch for a free consultation, coaching and training solutions.

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