Ask the average person what it takes to be a great leader and you will surely hear a bevy of characteristics and qualities, such as visionary, communicator, motivator, and charismatic. Perhaps you will also hear such idealistic qualities as humble, possessor of strong character, and servant of others. All of these relate to how a leader is perceived by others and how he relates to them. While these attributes unquestionably assist leaders in their work with their people, they will still under-deliver if they lack one critical but often overlooked internal quality: self-esteem.
Self-esteem is defined as the degree to which individuals feel comfortable with who they are, believe that they have inherent value as people, have the ability to demonstrate that value, and are confident in their ability to successfully achieve their own measure of success. It isn’t about being boastful, self-centered, or domineering. Rather, it’s about representing ourselves with quiet confidence, as an equal among equals, and leading others from a position of internal strength.
Self-esteem is vital for leaders because it’s what gives them the courage to lead, to pursue success, to and be decisive. A leader with high self-esteem does not feel threatened by others’ ideas, nor will they have a problem with hiring great people and empowering them to accomplish incredible things. Strong self-assurance makes the leader want to see the best in others and help them succeed, knowing that others’ success is ultimately their own. He puts the organization first and is the most committed person in the building. A self-confident leader is more concerned about being part of something great and accomplishing the task than worrying over who will get what position or what recognition.
In theory, leaders should be awash in self-esteem. Most have achieved great things professionally, prompting their advancements. Yet, for many leaders, self-respect is actually a precious, hard-to-come-by commodity.
Leaders lacking in self-esteem are weak internally and cannot confidently offer the guidance and direction people need without worrying about what others will think and say. They feel threatened by outside ideas and empowered employees, and will often try and hire people just a little below their ability so that nobody outperforms them. Sometimes their low self-regard will manifest with over-the-top aggressiveness and strong controlling behaviors. They become managers rather than leaders and try to gain respect and a sense of strength by insisting upon others’ conformity and compliance. Worse, leaders who lack in self-esteem come to question their ability to cope with problems, and even doubt whether they are worthy of the position of leadership that they occupy. Certainly, this is no way by which to lead and in most cases will produce disappointing results for the leader and his organization.
What can leaders with low self-esteem do to raise their feeling of self-worth and get the most out of themselves and those around them?
1. Recognize that you’re not alone – Self-doubt has afflicted even the greatest historical figures and leaders. While they may not admit it, many of the most outwardly confident leaders battle this same issue in private. You are in a larger crowd than you might think.
2. List your strengths – We all have strengths. This is particularly true for leaders, who have found their way up to the top of the corporate food chain. It is important to know what your strengths are and how they have helped you and will continue to assist you in achieving your goals. Keep the list handy when you start to feel “low”.
3. Name your weaknesses – Similarly, we all have weaknesses. There was no perfect leader ever in the history of man and you need not worry about being perfect, either. Once you know your strengths you can also be honest in listing your shortcomings and see how best to address or compensate for them.
To this end, I suggest that you consider using a technique often used by coaches to help clients identify their fears, which is to name the concern and then determine the implications and worst-case scenarios. What exactly are you afraid of and what’s the worst that can happen should your fear be realized in the fullest? This helps people overcome their dread, which, until named, can grow into a substantial, even paralyzing force. Similarly, when we identify what we are weak at and give it a name, we can start to figure out how to best compensate for such weakness, such as by finding others who complement our strengths or by strengthening our own skills.
4. Consider your impact – Most people want, more than anything else, to be seen as a giver who made an impact. Take some time to list some of the things that you have achieved, personally and for others. Think about how life would be different for those around you had you not been there for them.
5. Strengthen the things that you are good at – Once you have listed your strengths spend more of your time doing the work that aligns with them. This will help you optimize your performance and build from your strong suit. People around you will appreciate the good work that you do and you will start to feel more confident and comfortable in your role as leader.
6. Then seek to shore up other areas – Over time, invest time and resources to help you become stronger in other areas. This does not mean that you should aspire to become great across the board. It simply means that if you add to your toolkit, you will feel more capable, better informed, and less threatened by others.
7. Become more generous – Share freely of what you know with others. Let them learn from you and be inspired by you. Resist the temptation to hold your knowledge close to the vest, a strategy that you may have employed as you rose up the company ladder and sought personal recognition. As a leader, you can’t be in the business of keeping secrets, especially if you want your organization to grow. Moreover, by giving of your time and knowledge you will feel more closely associated with and more valuable to your team members and rise in esteem in their eyes. They will also become more loyal to you and what you seek to achieve.
8. Help raise others’ self-esteem – On a related point, the more that you see and share the positive in others, the more that you will identify similar qualities in yourself. You will also build a more positive work environment, one that you can be proud of. Sam Walton of Walmart fame said it this way: “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish.”
9. Focus on solutions – Leaders who are solutions-oriented don’t have time or interest in playing mind games or jockeying for position. Instead, they see challenges and opportunities and seek to leverage internal strengths to address them. By going after solutions, we rise above the mundane, self-centered considerations and stay focused on outcomes.
10. Realize that no one else can provide it – Self-esteem cannot be developed outside of us. No matter how many accolades we receive, we simply will not feel confident and fulfilled unless we learn how to develop such feelings from within. Think about how many leaders, entertainers, and others sought comfort in external stimulants or worse because all of the attention, praise and glory that they received was outside of themselves, leaving them with a gnawing, hollow feeling. Working on self-esteem is not simply another nice quality to add to your portfolio; it is the essence of who you are and what you do as a leader. Make consideration of your self-worth a regular part of your practice and work regularly to maintain high, healthy standards of your self-esteem.