Want to Be a Better Leader? Embrace Reality.


Conventional wisdom tells us that leadership is about confidence and control. The best leaders project a sense of self-assurance; they are here to show us the way, to lead us to the promise land. Often this means adopting a bit of a “fake it until you make it” approach, in which deep down you know that you don’t have all the answers, but you act like it in order to inspire others. Yet the research tells us that faking it works only in low-stakes, non-challenging situations.

Ilona Jerabek and her company PsychTests evaluated the impact of faking confidence in over 12,000 employees. Her conclusion: “pretending to be confident can be effective to some degree… however, like any façade we create, it won’t last.” Fake confidence is effective when stress and challenge are low and when accomplishing a task is well within our reach. When the going gets tough, fake confidence gets in the way.

In writing and researching Do Hard Things, I was struck by how the practices of some of the best coaches and CEO’s run counter to our conventional notions of developing resilient and high-performing teams. These leaders weren’t projecting relentless confidence and self-assurance. Rather, they were embracing the reality of whatever situation they faced and appropriately sizing up their capacity to deal with it. They strived for authenticity over bravado. They were attempting to quiet down their ego instead of finding people who propped it up.

Here are three key lessons I took away from these leaders in sport and organizational life:

1. Don’t let your insecurities drive the ship

Hard work is necessary for being good at just about anything. But what often happens is that we start to value hard and meaningless work, the kind of work that doesn’t really make a difference, and may even hinder our performance. We often use hard work to quell our doubts and our insecurities.

Think about the entrepreneur who incessantly grinds, even though research shows that the innovative ability of entrepreneurs is dependent on how well rested they are. Or the CEO who can’t step away on weekends for fear of falling behind, despite research showing working during non-standard hours decreases intrinsic motivation. Or the athlete who won’t take an off day for fear of losing their fitness, or who has to do a hard workout during their taper to “prove” to themselves that they are still fit. All of these are irrational decisions, and all harm performance rather than promote it.

We often get in our own way. We let our insecurities drive the ship. We often mask our insecurities with perfectionism and workaholism. The way back is simple. Stop striving for some unrealistic standard. Accept what you’re capable of in the moment and realize that sometimes you need to step back to move forward.

2. Stop with the fluffy slogans

Walk around the office of just about any organization—from elementary schools to Fortune 100 companies—and you’ll inevitably see values, missions, and goals plastered on the wall. Values are great. They motivate us and serve as a reminder of who we are and what we stand for. Unfortunately, far too often these values lack meaning to the very people they are meant to inspire. For the day-to-day worker, teacher, or athlete, they become nothing more than slogans (at best) and smokescreens (at worst).

In a series of studies, researchers found that our goals need to be authentic in order to have an impact. They need to reflect who we are and what actually matters. If we feel a disconnect between what’s displayed on the wall and what truly matters to us, that’s not good. In fact, researchers found that when people felt like their goals were imposed on them, they were more likely to fall short of whatever goal they had set. In in the corporate world, when a company’s values weren’t aligned with its actions, employees had lower productivity, and the company performed worse over the long haul.

 3. Don’t let your ego dominate the conversation 

Our ego is like a kid trying to be popular during middle school. It just wants to be liked. The moment it feels like failure or embarrassment is on the horizon, it quickly finds an out, diverting responsibility and distancing itself from the situation. The ego is all about protection.

We all, to some extent, walk around with a story in our head that we are a good, decent, and competent person. Whenever evidence presents itself to the contrary, our egos go into overdrive to rationalize, justify, or explain away why this cannot be true. Our egos do many good things for us, acting like social immune systems that swat away psychological threats. But if they are overactive, propping up a sense of self that doesn’t reflect reality, then our egos can be just as damaging as an overactive immune system. We don’t want to shut off our ego. We just want to dampen it down to a reasonable level.

Social psychologist Heidi Wayment pioneered the idea of a quiet ego. As she told Scientific American that with a quiet ego, “the volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”

A quiet ego is about keeping our sense of self in balance—coming to terms with the need for confidence, but being keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and our situation. It’s being open and receptive to others instead of defensive and closed off. It’s having the ability to zoom out, gain perspective, and understand that short-term loss is often part of long-term gain.


True confidence lies in acknowledging the good and bad, weaknesses and strengths. It doesn’t come from an over-inflated ego. That may work well when the task isn’t difficult. But like a runner who believes that a marathon will be a piece of cake, reality will smack them in the face sooner or later, and they’ll spiral towards catastrophizing and wanting to quit much more than the person who acknowledges the reality of the task at hand and what it takes to work through it. The key to leadership isn’t false bravado and projection, it’s living and dealing in reality.


This post is based on the contents of Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness.


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