Confidence or Competence: are we being seduced by over-confidence?

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

In this blog Catherine Carden considers how we overlook competence whilst being seduced by confidence and how we potentially target the wrong type of people as future leaders as a result.

We all want to appoint and develop future leaders who will be strong and effective and who have a positive impact on those they lead. But, are we spotting and championing the right people and prioritising the right traits or are we blinded by certain personalities?


As I come to the end of reading Why So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it) by Tomas Chomorro-Premuzic, I keep thinking about confidence and competence. This is something that Tomas devotes a chapter to within the book. I keep coming back to these thoughts as what he suggests is so important, yet often overlooked when spotting potentially successful leaders.


Why are we so often seduced by high levels of confidence? You know, the external confidence that some people emanate…that self-belief that they can do it well or know so much? Why are we in awe of those that tell us that they can, have and will? Those who always have something to say, or should I say state, in meetings. Those that tell us how good they are and those who relish a public platform. We often see these people as natural leaders who stand out from the crowd and who will surely do a great job in leading the school or subject… Don’t worry, I too have fallen for the charisma of the externally uber-confident.


However, charisma and high levels of confidence are a smokescreen, a tactic, used to baffle and blindside us into believing that where there is confidence there must undoubtedly be competence. This is a myth! There is actually very little correlation between confidence (how good you think you are at something) and competence (how good you are at something). Confidence is a belief and competence a skill yet time and time again we place our belief in the confidence without exploring the competence.


Initially, staff may be excited by the confidence exuded from the new appointment as they tell us what they can, sorry believe, they can do. Until, that is, the shine wears off and the reality of a lack of competence is exposed.


A great educational leader is highly competent not highly confident. We need leaders who are skilled and can lead effectively, juggling the daily challenges of school life with humility and integrity. Those who know what to do and how to do it.


So, how can we seek to find competence rather than confidence?


Recruiting staff: Is your selection process set up to favour the confident over the competent? Are we allowing ourselves to be bowled over by a shiny presentation rather than assessing the skills and leadership qualities we require? How do the humble and quiet applicants show their competence? Does the process allow for performers to outperform those much more equipped to undertake the job? Is it time to overhaul your recruitment process?


Developing staff: How are you identifying potential? Are you being drawn to believing the most confident and charismatic are the future leaders? Do you then offer those people the opportunities to develop networks, skills and knowledge; perhaps overlooking those who would make for better leaders?


Appraising staff: How does our appraisal or performance management system assess competence over confidence? Do you invite staff to tell you how they believe they can or invite them to show you how they can? Do you ask difficult or evidence-based questions or invite detailed conversations to really get to know how competent your staff are?


Developing you: How are your views on competence influenced by confidence? And how might you try and address this to ensure that you are not overlooking great potential leaders for those who hide a lack of competence with over-confidence and charisma?

If you feel that you are being caught in the confidence trap change what you are doing to allow for those who are humble and show integrity to shine…it may just revolutionise your school!


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