High Self-Esteem Isn't The Key To Great Leadership

There’s a lot of talk today about the crisis of leadership. As we’re going through a deep societal transformation, we need more leaders than ever. This means many of us need to step up and take the lead in their immediate environment.

New leaders are needed in online and offline communities, civil movements, workplaces, and even groups of friends who want to do something meaningful together. Chances are, you’re also called to lead in one way or another.

The common obstacle to leadership is a lack of confidence. We’re told we need high self-esteem to be successful leaders, either at work or in private life.

As a result, you may try to “build confidence” or “overcome imposter syndrome” before you step into that leadership role. After all, who will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself first?

It’s easy to assume that once your self-esteem increases, all problems will disappear:

  • People will start respecting you
  • Your boss will give you a raise
  • Your team will trust you more
  • You’ll suddenly feel “ready to lead” and confident in your decisions.

But is high self-esteem a quick fix to a leader’s challenges? Would it solve your problems overnight if you suddenly became fully confident in yourself?

Not necessarily. In fact, being overly confident can hinder your abilities as a leader, instead of supporting them.

What Is Self-Esteem and How Much Of It a Leader Needs

It seems obvious that the more self-esteem a leader has, the better job they can do of guiding others.

But is this really so? To answer, let’s first agree on what self-esteem means. One of the neatest and most complete definitions I found comes from this paper by Roy Baumeister and colleagues:

“Self-esteem is literally defined by how much value people place on themselves. It is the evaluative component of self-knowledge. High self-esteem refers to a highly favorable global evaluation of the self. Low self-esteem, by definition, refers to an unfavorable definition of the self. (…)
Self-esteem is thus perception rather than reality. It refers to a person’s belief about whether he or she is intelligent and attractive, for example, and it does not necessarily say anything about whether the person actually is intelligent and attractive.”

I’ll reiterate this because it’s important: Self-esteem is a quality of perception which doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Whether your self-esteem is high or low doesn’t say much about your character traits or skills.

The common argument goes that if a leader thinks highly of themselves, they have more confidence in their actions and decisions. This seems like a prerequisite to leading others. If you don’t have full confidence in what you’re doing, how can you expect others to follow you?

But that’s only if you assume leadership is about overpowering people and making them behave in a way they wouldn’t otherwise choose to. True leadership, however, means something else. As Seth Godin reminds us:

“Leaders create the conditions where people choose new actions.
The choices are voluntary. They’re made by people who see a new landscape, new opportunities and new options.
You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”

The leadership we need right now isn’t about forcing people to do what they don’t want to.

Rather, it’s about creating conditions that empower them to take actions they already want to take — but feel too shy, insecure, or confused to do that on their own.

To enable that, a great leader doesn’t need high self-esteem. Other qualities can be way more useful for this.

When High Self-Esteem Becomes Unhelpful For Leaders

I remember talking to my mentor a few years ago and whining about all the great things I would accomplish — if only I had more self-esteem. I always felt I lacked the confidence to do the things I wanted: lead mindfulness workshops, coach others, write books.

She listened patiently, then she responded:

“Confidence isn’t something you can have before you start. It grows as you do the things you want to do. You can’t be confident about what you haven’t done yet.”

This changed the way I thought about confidence and self-esteem. I realized that sitting around waiting for confidence to come wasn’t helpful. A much better way was to go out into the world and started doing the things I wanted— while gaining confidence as a “side effect.”

This was also liberating. What my mentor said gave me permission to start pursuing my dreams before I felt ready.

The same goes for self-esteem. You may want to have more of it before you take up a leadership position. But what you overlook is that self-esteem will most likely build up naturally as you lead and support others — not before.

Self-esteem in leadership may not just be overrated. Sometimes, it can downright hinder your ability to lead.

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith points out a bias people in leadership positions commonly experience. Because of their high place in the work hierarchy, they develop high self-esteem that isn’t necessarily rooted in reality. This may make them confuse their flaws for their strengths. As a result, they end up believing they succeeded because of those flaws — while, in reality, they succeeded despite them!

One interesting example was the executive director Goldsmith coached. He delivered outstanding results but had one big weakness — he was a terrible listener. Interestingly, he believed this was a good thing. By paying little attention to others, he thought he shielded himself against distractions and was able to focus.

His team, however, didn’t see it that way. The director could have done a much better job leading if only he listened more. But because of his executive role, he fell prey to the bias that comes with high self-esteem. He wasn’t able to even begin to see where he could improve.

While there’s nothing wrong with knowing your worth, maybe we attach too much importance to it. What if there were other qualities you could be working on instead?

Better yet — what if those qualities would make the need for high self-esteem redundant?

Why You Should Trade High Self-Esteem for Self-Mastery

There are many ways to understand self-mastery — but these two interpretations stand out:

  1. Self-mastery as accurate insight into the inner workings of the self. In this sense, self-mastery is close to what people commonly mean by self-awareness.
  2. Self-mastery as a commitment to the process of self-development, realizing your full potential, and becoming the best version of yourself.

As an alternative to cultivating high-self esteem, I suggest you join both aspects of self-mastery and develop them in yourself. Why? Because they contain a lot of essential qualities of a good leader.

For example, accurate self-knowledge seems to be more important than positive self-evaluation. And as much as people think they know themselves, that’s rarely true. Tasha Eurich who’s been researching self-awareness in leadership for over 15 years, wrote:

“Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10–15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

Additionally, she found that “experience and power hinder self-awareness.”

The higher they are in the work hierarchy, the less negative feedback a leader typically receives. This often means — as Marshall Goldsmith noticed — that those leaders develop false views of their weaknesses and strengths. This drives them away from, rather than towards, accurate self-knowledge.

Then, we also have self-mastery as the willingness to grow and evolve. Why is this important for a leader? First, it enhances their capacity to accept mistakes, both in themselves and those they lead. Those leaders prioritize learning over being right and, as a consequence, “create an environment where people choose to change.”

Second, leaders who pursue self-mastery are process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented. This means they are less inclined to label or judge themselves and others. By default, this means they don’t have to rely on high self-esteem all that much.

As Roy Baumeister noticed, self-esteem is the “evaluative component of self-knowledge.” Focusing on it often means labeling oneself and others. Am I worthy or unworthy? Skilled or not skilled? Good enough or not good enough?

This creates the impression that humans are finished entities with fixed traits. But we all know this isn’t true. People are constantly changing and evolving. We are all work in progress. Focusing on self-mastery rather than self-esteem helps the leader to appreciate this.

As a result, they can create possibilities that didn’t exist before. When leaders see people for what they could become and not just who they are today, they enable the transformation of those they lead.

Leadership Is About Encouraging Growth

“We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.” — Abraham Maslow

A great leader is usually the person who cares the most.

This means they make themselves available to others. They create a “container” for people to grow in. To do that, they often need to be vulnerable and risk exposing themselves for the benefit of the whole.

If the first thing you care about is maintaining high self-esteem, this may be tricky to do.

However, if you focus on self-mastery — getting to know yourself and growing — that vulnerability required to lead is aligned with how you live your life.

Your self-esteem is circumstantial. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to feel confident all of the time. A good leader doesn’t fight their ups and downs. Instead, they accept them and empower others to accept them, too.

Instead of pushing for high self-esteem, commit to self-mastery. It will empower not just you, but also everyone around.

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