J. Reuben Clark Law Society

The Confidence Gap and Leadership

Confidence—we need it! This was the message that came across loud and clear  from Dr. Susan Madsen at the JRCLS Annual Conference on February 12, 2016. In an engaging and important presentation, Dr. Madsen, who is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University’s Woodbury School of Business, taught attendees how women in leadership strengthen the business climate, why women sometimes struggle to find the confidence to step up to leadership, and what we can do to encourage more women leaders.

We need to promote women’s participation in leadership. Dr. Madsen stated that most organizations do not fully realize the value of having women in key leadership roles. It may be that women themselves also do not realize the difference they make to a leadership team, but there are substantial advantages for everyone when women lead. Dr. Madsen cited studies which show that when women in business are part of leadership teams, those organizations show improved financial performance. Their profitability is increased, economic growth is better, and debt is reduced more quickly. In addition, the organizational climate is strengthened, with higher employee and customer satisfaction, less turnover, increased productivity and more ethical company choices and decisions. Women in leadership also influence companies to leverage talent in a beneficial way, to increase corporate social responsibility (which enhances the company’s reputation), and to enhance innovation and collective intelligence. From Dr. Madsen’s findings, it is overwhelmingly clear that businesses do themselves a significant disservice by not attracting women leaders and retaining these leaders in upper echelons of their organizations.

While exterior barriers to women’s leadership certainly exist, women also face interior barriers to becoming leaders. Dr. Madsen next focused on what confidence is, why women sometimes struggle with finding and keeping it, and why a lack of confidence impacts a woman’s ability to step up to leadership. We need confidence every hour of every day, and without it we cannot succeed or even envision what we can do or become. We cannot contribute to the world to our full potential. Self-doubt, proclaims Dr. Madsen, is a waste of precious time!

What is confidence, then? According to Dr. Madsen, it is not just feeling good about ourselves or believing affirmations from others. It is not just self-esteem. Confidence is about the belief that mastery is possible, cultivation of an appetite to accept a challenge and the determination to keep going despite setbacks. Self-compassion is an attribute crucial for confidence because it allows us to take risks and then put resulting setbacks or failures in a positive light.

Dr. Madsen next pointed out that there are key differences in confidence between the genders. Evidence shows that women struggle more with confidence issues than men do. They are generally less self-assured, have more anxiety in leaving their comfort zones, have a harder time letting go of defeats or mistakes, keep hurt feelings longer, judge themselves harder and beat themselves up more, thus not learning from failures as well as men. These differences show up across cultures, incomes, ages, professions and generations. Women often begin dialogues with disclaimers or apologies, they deflect praise away, and assume blame when things go wrong while not taking credit for success. Men generally do the opposite. Regarding qualifications for advancement in careers, studies show that men are happy to apply for advancement when they can meet 60% of the job requirements, while women will not apply unless they feel they are 100% qualified. Perfectionism holds women back from making decisions and acting. Women tend to talk less when they are outnumbered by men and then are frustrated when a man says what they are thinking. They also spend too much time overthinking or ruminating on problems and perceived failures, which can freeze decision making and action. Perceptions about physical appearance also play into the confidence gap issues.

Can anything be done to change women’s confidence issues? Dr. Madsen asserts that although genetics play a part in how much confidence we come to the world with, we are able to change our brains in ways that positively affect our thoughts and actions at any age. We can literally carve new pathways in our adult brains for more confident thinking, which can override genetics and change brain chemistry. It is our choice.  

Suggestions from Dr. Madsen to change brain wiring regarding confidence include learning to develop a growth mindset—always believing that we can improve and  continue to learn. She also advocates breaking rumination cycles, to be aware of and stop distracting or destructive thoughts that can take over our minds and actions. Taking risks, struggling through difficult tasks, failing and then learning from failure, quashing perfectionism and focusing outward instead of on ourselves are the roadmap for promoting confidence. With a foundation of confidence, a woman can step up and become the leader she is born to be, and achieve the world change she is capable of making.

Dr. Madsen concluded with this thought by Robert F. Kennedy: “Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Dr. Madsen, with her message and example of confident leadership, certainly sent that ripple of hope to all who heard her at the Annual Conference, giving all a vision of the importance of reaching and sharing our potential through confident leadership. As she emphatically stated: “Be ready to lead! Take a stand!”

By: Jennifer Wilson, 2016 Conference Planning Committee Member

Posted: March 29, 2016