With Martin G. Moore

Episode #229

Confidence, Arrogance, and Self-Doubt: The fine lines we tread…

In the world of modern leadership, we’re conditioned to believe that humility is the most essential characteristic we can possess. And there’s no doubt that some measure of humility is important.

But it’s easy to misinterpret this to mean that we shouldn’t display confidence… that confidence is somehow the enemy of humility.

Nothing could be further from the truth and, in my experience, a leader who lacks confidence can be just as dangerous as a leader who lacks humility.

In this episode, I give you a window into my own journey from leadership arrogance to quiet confidence, and I get right under the hood to examine some critical questions:

  • Why is it so important for a leader to develop a level of confidence?

  • What’s the difference between confidence and arrogance? and,

  • How do you overcome the self-doubt that paralyzes many leaders?

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Episode #229 Confidence, Arrogance, and Self-Doubt: The fine lines we tread…

In the world of modern leadership, we’re conditioned to believe that humility is one of the most essential characteristics for a leader to possess. There’s no doubt that some measure of humility is important, but it’s easy to misinterpret this to mean that we shouldn’t display confidence… that confidence is somehow the enemy of humility. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In my experience, a leader who lacks confidence can be just as dangerous as a leader who lacks humility.

In this LinkedIn Newsletter, I want to get right under the hood to examine a few critical questions.

  • Why is it so important for a leader to develop a level of confidence?

  • What’s the difference between confidence and arrogance? and

  • How do you overcome that self-doubt that paralyzes many leaders?

I’m going to give you a window into my own journey from leadership arrogance to quiet confidence. I’ll examine why confidence is such a vital attribute for a leader to possess. And I’ll also take a look at self-doubt, and the vital role that it plays in our leadership development.


When I was younger, I was pretty arrogant. I don’t think you would’ve found me to be rude or socially abrasive, but I definitely gave the impression that I thought I was better than a lot of other people.

I understand now where that feeling came from, and it certainly wasn’t from my parents. My mother, in particular, was one of the gentlest, most humble people who has ever walked on this planet.

I was gifted in two very important ways. First, I was born with a high IQ, and second, I was born to parents with outstanding values. They believed deeply in the benefit of a first-rate education, and extracurricular activities like music and sport. They instilled in me and my four siblings the value of hard work, and always giving our best.

Being brought up in a competitive environment, I pushed myself to excel, and I did so both academically and in the sporting arena. But to be perfectly honest, I underachieved in both of these areas because it all came fairly naturally to me. My outcomes were good, but they didn’t live up to my full potential.

In retrospect, I was cruising along in third gear. I got by mainly on my God-given talents, rather than doing the really hard work that would’ve brought out my very best. But of course, I didn’t realize any of this until later on.

As early as 4th Grade in school, before my 10th birthday, I received accolades for being the only child in the history of my little primary school in the suburbs of Sydney to be awarded 12 straight A’s in 12 subjects. What I didn’t realize then was that I was swimming in a pretty shallow pool!

As I got a little older and wiser (that is, of course, by the age of 12), I was at one of Australia’s top ranked schools for academic and sporting excellence. Now, in this company, it was all I could do to be one of the top 10 students in my grade.

Humility was starting to creep in. I was chipping away at my arrogance, but I wouldn’t truly understand it until much later on.

Because I could outperform my peers, when I went into the workforce, I was pretty arrogant about my capabilities. I remember commenting to friends in my early days as a software developer that my boss was an idiot and I was already doing his job for him. And this happened more than once in my first few years.

When I was promoted into leadership roles, my arrogance carried through. I was all about proving how good I was. And to lift myself up, I would subtly (but unmistakably) make people feel as though they weren’t as capable as I was.

Now, the sum total of all this was that I managed to achieve some superb results… but I didn’t leave the people around me better off than they were before they met me, in any sense of the word. It was almost as if my success came at their expense. And that, my friends, is arrogance.


Now, it’s worth me spending just a few moments to tell you about my sporting achievements, or should I say, under-achievements?

I could have actually been a pretty decent rugby player. Instead, I ended up being very average, for two reasons: The first is that I simply wasn’t tough enough. I was always just a little reluctant to go into a tackle with the same gusto that some of my teammates would, because in the back of my mind I was afraid of getting hurt. The second reason was that I simply didn’t work hard enough. I mean, sure, I was fit, and I trained hard in our team sessions, but I didn’t spend the hours in the gym or take the time to perfect my skillset the way the top players did.

At the University of Sydney, while I was busy failing my undergraduate law degree, I played rugby with some guys who went on to reach the pinnacle of the sport. One gentleman that I played rugby with briefly (because, of course, rugby is played by gentlemen), was Nick Farr-Jones. Nick went on to represent Australia in over 60 international matches, and he captained the Wallabies to their first World Cup victory in 1991.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t anywhere near his caliber, but I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, after team training on a Tuesday night… we would all have had our hot showers and we’d be in the grandstand bar drinking our first ice cold beer. We’d look down on that poorly-lit field, and there was Nick, practicing his passing skills with the coach Rupert Rosenblum.

Sure, Nick was incredibly talented, but that’s not the reason he went on to be a legend of international rugby.

In our high school days, Nick and I raced each other a few times on the track, over 800 meters, and look, I never came close to beating him. When I left school, though, I relaxed my rigorous training routine. When Nick left school, he doubled down.

Nick and his brothers used to train with a group of elite athletes, known as the Birubi Track Club, under legendary coach, Jack Pross. They would undergo the most punishing training sessions, the ones where at least a third of the guys would be physically sick after the sessions because they pushed themselves to their limits. I had good reason to call Nick Farr-Jones, the fittest guy in World Rugby.


So let me come back to the question of arrogance, and how it played out for me. I knew I could outperform most people intellectually, and that became the basis for my feelings of superiority. But deep down, I knew two things:

  • The first was that most of this was due to nothing more than my genetic makeup, which I could take absolutely no credit for at all. I just won that spin of the roulette wheel.

  • The second was that I also knew that I was, in many ways, weak. And I was still a long way from reaching my ultimate potential.

This mild self-loathing added to my deep insecurity, and it subconsciously led me to stand above others to make myself feel better about myself. That is arrogance.

But let me be clear: I wasn’t malicious, and I didn’t tear people down. I just didn’t value them enough. It wasn’t until much later that I understood and learned how to manage the dark side of my arrogance.

Arrogance is ugly, but as my empathy increased, the arrogance shifted to become confidence, and this confidence became a critical element of my leadership fingerprint. I truly believe that confidence is a prerequisite for any leader who wants to be the best for their people.


Why is confidence such a critical attribute for a leader?

Without confidence, many other desirable attributes that should be a positive actually become a negative. Let’s get back to humility. This is an incredibly important leadership trait, but if your natural humility is combined with a lack of confidence, people are going to see you as weak, indecisive, and ineffective.

They won’t want to follow you. They’ll actually feel insecure, and they won’t trust your judgment. They’ll feel as though they can’t rely on you to lead them in difficult times. Confidence is essential, because as much as you want your people to trust you, you also have to be able to trust yourself.

To make a difficult decision in an environment of high complexity and ambiguity, you have to be confident that you’re capable of making big decisions.

To speak your mind and go against the groupthink that inevitably develops in a corporate culture, you have to be confident that your opinions and perspectives are valuable.

To stretch one of your people to perform in a way that exceeds their own expectations, you’ve got to be confident that it’s ultimately the best thing for them.

To make big bets on strategic choices, you’ve got to be confident that you have the right people around you who’ve done their homework.

No matter how you look at it, without some level of confidence, you’re going to find it much more difficult to lead for results. When you lack confidence, you’ll procrastinate more on your decisions. You’ll find it difficult to sort out good information from bad. You’ll struggle to mediate any points of disagreement that you find in your team.

But, most importantly, when you lack confidence, two critical risks emerge in the way you run your team:

The first risk is that you’ll constantly look for safety in numbers. You’ll try to find a consensus view on every issue, giving you a false sense of confidence. You’ll take comfort from the fact that everyone’s managed to reach the same conclusion. This can be so dangerous. Endless compromise is slow, and it’s ineffective. Momentum deserts your team, groupthink emerges, and people fall into line behind the safest option. And in case you’re wondering, that’s not a good thing.

The second risk is that the loudest voice will prevail. In the absence of your own confidence, you’re much more likely to listen to someone else who appears to be extremely confident. I came across many people in my corporate career who were overconfident, but they seemed to get their way because the other people around them weren’t confident enough to challenge them. Many of these people just suffered from an annoying personality trait that I like to call, often wrong, never in doubt.


We know it’s really important to have a level of quiet confidence when you’re in a leadership role, but how do you make sure that your confidence doesn’t become overconfidence or even arrogance?

If I wanted to draw a clear distinction between confidence and arrogance, I’d describe it simply as this: Arrogance is confidence without empathy. It’s what happens when you don’t understand (or care to understand) the perspectives of the people around you. And, of course, you have an over-inflated view of your own capability. This puts you in the unenviable situation where you can’t learn from your people, and they know you don’t care what they think, so they don’t bother telling you. Arrogant leaders make bad decisions and create toxic cultures.

If I wanted to draw the distinction between confidence and overconfidence, I’d describe it this way: Overconfidence is confidence without self-awareness. This implies that you’re more confident than your performance would suggest you should be. It means you can’t accurately assess your own performance.

A confident leader looks at past mistakes and failures and says, “Hmm, that didn’t turn out the way I expected. What can I take from that to become better and not make that mistake again?” They build their self-awareness and their competence at the same time.

An overconfident leader is different. That leader looks at his past mistakes and failures and says, “I don’t know how that happened, but it wasn’t my fault.” They will blame everyone else except themselves, which wouldn’t be quite so bad, except that it completely stunts their own development. Overconfident leaders don’t learn, they don’t grow, and they don’t change. They never develop the humility that comes from realizing we all make mistakes.


How do you maintain a level of confidence, without allowing yourself to become overconfident or arrogant? Here’s a quick laundry list of five things you can focus on:

  1. Listen to others and no matter who they are, what level they’re at, or what role they play, just be open to the possibility that they may have something valuable to contribute.

  2. Seek feedback from trusted advisors to help you calibrate your view of yourself with how other people actually experience you.

  3. Work on your empathy: being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes is one of the most valuable life skills you can possess.

  4. Remain curious: instead of interpreting a situation by rationalizing it, seek to understand it better. You’ve got to ask yourself the right questions, “Why did that happen?”; “What did I miss?”; “What could I have done differently?”

  5. Carry out ruthless postmortems. When something goes wrong, look to yourself first and take accountability for the failure.

In my view, every failure in every business is a failure of leadership. If someone four layers below me makes a critical error, I first look to myself. What did I do (or what did I not do) that enabled that person to make that mistake? Did I invest sufficiently in their training and development? Did the leaders between me and that person clearly articulate the performance standard? Is the accountability culture strong enough? Was there sufficient support in terms of resources and information to make a better decision?

It takes enormous confidence to operate like that, but it also requires humility, empathy, and self-awareness.


Let’s take a quick look at the role that self-doubt plays. The most confident leaders in the world experience frequent periods of self-doubt.

Now, I must say I’m not a huge fan of the popular phrase, imposter syndrome. I see how it can be useful in helping people to feel as though the doubts they have are natural. So I guess it can be a handy lens to look through. But the danger is that we may be tempted to simply dismiss our doubts, to just push them away and say, “Oh, that’s my imposter syndrome kicking in. Everyone has it and it’s not real, so I’m going to choose to ignore it.”

Well, okay, but these doubts that we call imposter syndrome are incredibly important in our quest to develop a genuine, healthy level of confidence. Doubt is the natural handbrake that regulates our confidence. It’s the conduit to self-awareness that enables us to ask ourselves the most critical questions. Questions like, “What if I’m wrong?”; “Where is this going?”; “Is my intent pure?; “How did I contribute to that failure?”

Self-doubt, ironically, is one of the most powerful weapons for building confidence. And if you can learn how to harness your self-doubt, over time you become really comfortable with asking yourself the hard questions.

You learn where you’re weak and where you’re strong… you become much better at interpreting the inputs you receive… your decision-making becomes incredibly sound… you become an expert at identifying and assessing the risks you face… and, the bonus? You develop a very finely-tuned bullsh!t detector!


Now, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Even though there’s a recent school of thought that says confidence isn’t a good thing in leadership, I couldn’t disagree more strongly. Without confidence, you can’t lead your team anywhere. But you also can’t allow your confidence to become overconfidence or arrogance.

Part of your journey of self-discovery, as you establish your leadership fingerprint, is to know the difference and to work out how to tread that fine line between them.

Empathy, self-awareness, curiosity, and the willingness to take personal accountability: these are the tools that are going to help you become more confident, without succumbing to the dark side of The Force.

Instead of simply pushing your self-doubt away, you can use it to fuel your awareness and understanding. Over time, that’s going to help you to develop the quiet confidence that is a defining characteristic of all great leaders.


  • Episode #58: Imposter Syndrome and Other Dilemmas – Listen Here

  • Episode #135: When Empathy Becomes Sympathy – Listen Here

  • Episode #183: Mentors, Coaches & Trusted Advisors – Listen Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

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