With Martin G. Moore

Episode #276

Building Leadership Confidence: Small steps yield BIG results!

One of the biggest barriers to change, in any area of your life, is your own awareness of the size of the gap—that gap between your current state and your desired state.

And I’m no different to anyone else! I’ve struggled with this principle over the years in a number of different areas…

When I stacked on a few pounds after a running injury, I knew how much work it would take to get back to racing weight… and that became a barrier to starting my recovery process.

Often, the gap is so daunting that we feel like we don’t know where to begin. But in almost every case… we actually do! We just don’t want to face into it, because we know that, once we start, we have a mountain of work ahead of us.

In this episode, I take you through the process of not just starting, but mastering what you know you need to be doing, as a leader.

I simply give you a couple of leadership areas where most of you are probably underdone, and help you to work out both where to start, and how to keep momentum, by gaining the confidence that you will be successful… if only you can persevere!

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Episode #276 Building Leadership Confidence: Small steps yield BIG results!

Small steps yield BIG results!


One of the greatest barriers to change in any area of your life is your own awareness of the size of the gap—the gap between your current state and your desired state. And I’m no different to anyone else. I’ve struggled with this principle over the years in a number of different areas.

When I stacked on a few pounds after a running injury, I knew how much work it would take to get back to racing weight, and that became a barrier to me starting my recovery process.

When I came across a gap in my resume, I knew I had to acquire new skills and experience, which could take years to acquire, and then years more to demonstrate that I could actually apply them.

Often, the gap is so daunting that we feel as though we don’t know where to begin. But in almost every case, we actually sort-of do. We just don’t want to face into it, because we know that, once we start, we’ve got a mountain of work ahead of us.

In this episode, I take you through the process of not just starting, but mastering the things you need to be doing to be a competent leader. This is pretty simple: I’m just going to go to a couple of leadership areas (where, if truth be told, most of you are probably a little underdone).

My hope is that I can help you to work out both where to start, and how to keep momentum, by gaining the confidence that you will be successful (if only you can persevere!)


When I outline the principles of No Bullshit Leadership, and talk about what it takes to be a strong leader who’s focused on value and performance, I realize that the gap I’m painting is pretty large for most people.

Leaders who already believe their own bullsh!t will tend to dismiss that gap, by telling themselves that they already know the principles that I’m espousing.

There’s a huge difference, though, between knowing intellectually how to lead, and putting that into practice in real life. My observation is that very few leaders manage to put this theoretical knowledge into good practice.

It doesn’t matter what part of the world you live in: studies on the quality and capability of leaders show that, on average, leaders massively overrate their leadership performance, when they’re asked to self-report. But this is a staggering departure from the way their people experience their leadership.

When you ask leaders, “How do you rate your leadership performance, on a scale from one to ten?” They’re likely to say, “Well, of course I’m pretty humble, but I know that I’m at least an 8 and 1/2.

Well, ask the people who work for them how they rate their boss’s performance, on a scale from one to ten: you’ll get a 4, at best.

Those results aren’t flattering, but they do tell a story. I know that a lot of meaning can be lost in the averages, but it tells us that the Dunning-Kruger effect is alive and well. Like many areas in life, leaders overestimate their own ability, and underestimate other people’s abilities.

I have a message that I want to convey loud and clear, so that you can embed this deep into your psyche: the very fact that you’re reading this article now means that you aren’t one of those people.

You have at least enough self-awareness to know what you don’t know… you are striving to become a better leader every day… and you don’t believe your own bullsh!t, just because you may have been successful in the past. You’re looking for ways to improve. But still, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start.


A really good way to work out where you might have gaps in your leadership capability is to take our Personal Leadership Audit. This is a free tool that we developed some time ago to enable leaders to evaluate their capability against the high-performance leadership framework of No Bullsh!t Leadership.

This audit isn’t going to help you to work out if you need to be more humble, or more courageous—it’s going to enable you to assess yourself against the practical dimensions of high-performance leadership.

As we say to the leaders who join us for our flagship program, Leadership Beyond the Theory, there might be 50 things during the course of the program that you could potentially improve: but you need to adopt the principle of simplicity and focus. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Just decide on one or two areas that you’re going to try to develop or improve. Don’t be too ambitious. Just bite them off one at a time.

How would you know where to start? Well, I’ve got a couple of really simple criteria:

  • Start with the things that will give you the biggest bang for buck: the areas where you can get significant results with minimal effort… where you can see positive progress really quickly.

  • Then, overlay this with the overall context of your leadership capability: try to work out if there are any areas of weakness that would be showstoppers for your career path ambitions.

That’s it. Just start there.

Once you pick an area, there’s a basic methodology to follow:

  1. Come up with your own solution. I can’t tell you what the best solution is for you, because it’s a very individual thing, but I can give you some ideas about the small steps that are likely to yield big results;

  2. More than anything else, you have to start in a place that’s manageable, by doing something you can get your head around as a first step: you can build on it from there; and

  3. As you take those first few steps, be positive and optimistic, even before you see the results: you’ve got to give yourself a chance to build your confidence.

If you apply these principles to any focus area, it’ll make the gap between where you are and where you’d ultimately like to be feel much smaller. So, I’m going to look at two simple but vital leadership skills that new leaders and old leaders alike tend to struggle with… and I’m going to give you some basic tools that will act as a catalyst, pushing you to bridge the performance gap and acquire rock solid confidence in your capabilities.


A lot of leaders are afraid to speak up in meetings. They often know the answer, or they want to ask a question, but they’re afraid to voice it.

There are a number of common drivers that may keep you sitting quietly in the corner:

  • Perhaps the conversation’s being dominated by someone more senior, or more experienced (or sometimes by someone who just has a louder voice)? There are lots of people at all levels in organizations that I like to call, often wrong, never in doubt. I know that can be intimidating.

  • Maybe you’re waiting for the perfect moment to interject, and that moment just never seems to arrive?

  • Maybe you’re worried that your opinion might not be correct, or even worse, that it might be unpopular?

  • Perhaps you just don’t feel as though you’re qualified to speak, compared to the other people in the room, and this is particularly common when you’re a more junior person in a room with people who are above your level in the company hierarchy. We’re taught to be deferential to authority figures, so it’s no wonder that most of us want to subordinate our views to people in more senior positions.

I want to let you in on a little secret about me: I made a pretty successful career out of asking dumb questions, because most of the time they were questions that everyone else had in their heads, but they were too afraid to ask.

And most of the time—not always—my questions actually turned out to be pretty smart.

I remember a meeting once many years ago where a young McKinsey consultant who’s now a very senior partner was presenting to us. For argument’s sake, let’s just call him Chris (because that was his name)—I’m pretty sure he won’t be reading this. 😂

Anyhow, Chris was taking a bunch of executives from my company through the workings of a value driver tree that his team had developed.

He said at one point of his explanation, quite dismissively, “You don’t need to worry about this part too much. It’s just simple math.” And because he actually was the smartest guy in the room, everyone just accepted it.

But I couldn’t actually work out how the steps he was showing us linked together. Of course, I didn’t want to look stupid in front of my boss and my peers, but I genuinely couldn’t see how he’d arrived at his answer. So I chimed in and said, “Chris, I might be a bit slow here, mate, but can you please run me through that step up there? I just can’t work out how you got from that step to the next one.”

Well, blow me down with a feather: as he tried to explain it, he realized that he had made an error in his math. And I was so close to not saying anything… but I am so glad that I did.

I have dozens, if not hundreds of stories just like that one. But this isn’t about me, it’s about you getting the confidence to speak up. So, where do you start to build that confidence?

Like most things, it begins with a commitment to take action. A small step that’s just going to put you in the game. From that first small step will come the confidence that your willingness to speak up has more positive outcomes than negative ones. So, you want to make sure that your early attempts to inject yourself into the conversation don’t reinforce your fear and anxiety.

The best way to ensure a relatively positive outcome that’s going to build your confidence is to learn how to start your sentence. If you can initiate it in a completely non-threatening, inquisitive way, whether you’re right or wrong doesn’t even matter, and whether the question is smart or not-so-smart doesn’t even matter.

I didn’t always do this, but over time I learned through trial and error to start my questions with a phrase that would pave the way for a curious, non-confrontational exchange. I’d say things like:

  • “Look, I could well be wrong here, but…” or

  • “Obviously I don’t have all the facts, but is there an opportunity for us to look at this problem from a slightly different angle?” or

  • “I’m sorry, but I don’t quite get this. Could you please explain that part again?” or

  • “I’m not sure that I fully understand this, but if you can bear with me, it just occurs to me that…”

Whatever works for you—you get the general idea. Just take some steps in the right direction. Try to get one or two of those phrases down pat, memorize them, and then you can start any question, any sentence, any query with that phrase.

The next step: make a commitment to yourself to speak up at least once in every meeting you attend for the next week. Eventually, you’ll conquer your fear of looking stupid. You’ll also find that you’re often asking brilliant questions that no-one else has thought to ask, or you’ll be echoing the thoughts that other people have too, but they’re not confident enough to air them publicly.

Your personal leadership stock will rise, and you’ll start to feel more confident as a leader who sets the pace, not just follows along in the pack.


The potential for conflict is ever-present in a leader’s day-to-day work. Everything you do as a leader brings with it the possibility of personal conflict, which you then have to manage:

  • Speaking up in a meeting , as we just saw, may potentially generate conflict;

  • Negotiating with a supplier over a service contract will naturally have conflict;

  • Saying “no” to the people around you who want you to take on non-value adding work is going to be a source of conflict.

But the most fertile ground for conflict is the one-on-one conversation. I know so many leaders who hate these conversations… who’ll do anything to avoid these conversations. If this rings a bell for you, you’ll already know the fear and dread that you go through when you contemplate having a difficult one-on-one conversation

So you avoid that conversation that you know you should be having. That is, of course, until you can’t avoid it any longer… then you have that conversation, and it goes terribly–just as you predicted. This makes it even less likely that you’ll feel like conducting one of these conversations in the future.

I often say, the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything! But there’s one thing in this regard that I’m pretty certain about: conflict delayed is conflict multiplied. That’s just the way it works. The more you put it off, the harder it gets, the more intense it’s going to be.

Of course, conflict aversion is incredibly common in all humans, and leaders aren’t magically built differently. I know several really senior leaders, even CEOs being paid millions of dollars each year, who are incredibly conflict averse… so, they’ll happily ‘spray’ a group of people with an outburst to voice their dissatisfaction in a meeting, but they’re either incapable or unwilling to address an individual performance issue in the only place that’s actually appropriate: a one-on-one setting.

Having just said how common conflict aversion is, I believe that it’s something that everyone, without exception, can learn to manage and eventually master. But you have to start somewhere, so where would you start?

It’s incredibly obvious to me that overcoming conflict aversion is 90% will and 10% skill—but we worry about not having the skill, and that becomes the barrier that holds us back from starting. Trust me, it’s not the skill that counts.

Want to know where to start? Use this mantra:

Like any new skill, when I first start to do this, I’m going to be bad at it—that goes without saying. But I have to start there if I ever want to get better. And that’s okay, because every conversation I have will make me better. This is a skill that I can develop over time, and it’s a skill that I absolutely need if I want to be a competent leader!

That’s a great mantra to have, so pick up a variation of that in your own words, and just say it over and over again. It will help.

Then start with baby steps. Start with a positive conversation, a short one, where you just want to give someone feedback on something they’ve done well, or an improvement you’ve noticed that they’ve recently made. Do it casually and informally. There’s no need to put any pressure on yourself. You need to do enough of these so that you get used to being in the position to give someone feedback which, let’s face it, is a key part of a leader’s job.

You’ll realize soon enough that you can’t just continually pump up someone’s tires. Eventually, that’s going to feel disingenuous, to you and to them.

Once you start to get comfortable, though, giving your people positive reinforcement, start to think of ways that those same individuals can improve, and start to give them some of that guidance. For example, “You did a great job on that report. I just want to share an observation that might help you to make it even better next time.

Keep going down this path, and eventually you’ll be in a place where you’ll feel as though you can take on a difficult conversation with someone who has a real performance issue that needs to be addressed.

The big thing is, be deliberate about scheduling those meetings. It’s only the first 100 or so that are hard. After that, you’ll begin to feel more in control, until one day you get to the stage where there is no fear, no dread, no anxiety. You step into any conversation without thinking about the personal impact on you—only the impact that you can potentially have on other people.

The number one thing here is the commitment to start. So, try to make yourself an iron-clad promise to have one of these simple, informal conversations for 30 days in a row, and just see how you feel at the end of that. I guarantee that you’ll be well on your way to conquering your fear of difficult conversations, and your skill will be building every single day.


I said at the start that you’re going to need positivity and optimism as you go through this journey. This is incredibly important, so let me just explain what I mean. Taking the example of the difficult conversation: pretty early on, you’re going to have a terrible conversation. Things are going to escalate. You’ll feel like you don’t know how to respond, and that you are completely inept at handling that situation. It’s going to happen somewhere along your journey to mastery of conflict. It’s just a matter of time.

If you want to build your confidence, here’s what you need to do: your natural disposition will be to leave a bad one-on-one meeting and immediately let the negative self-talk take over:

That was terrible… I had no idea how to respond… I didn’t get my point across… As soon as it escalated, I lost my self-control… I’m hopeless at this!

Don’t do that.

Just don’t.

You need to replace the negative self-talk with a reinforcement of all the positive outcomes that came from that terrible meeting. Things like this.

Well, that didn’t go well, but I know it’s part of the process… I’m going to learn from that, and I’m going to be better next time… just the fact that I had the courage to step into that conversation is a massive step in the right direction… these stumbles are inevitable, and it’s just another scar on my way to true leadership wisdom… I’m way better now as a leader than I was before I had that terrible conversation.

I can’t begin to tell you how radically different your outcomes are going to be, depending upon which of those self-talk responses you choose.

Making major shifts in your leadership capability and performance starts with the commitment to take small steps in the right direction, and then interpreting them through the lens of progress, not through the lens of failure.


We hear so much these days about the virtuous leadership attributes that we need to aspire to. But trying to focus on modeling these virtues is a mug’s game: you just end up pretending to be something you’re not, and this doesn’t breed confidence. Quite the opposite!

Interestingly, though, if you work on the daily habits that help you to overcome your leadership capability gaps, then someday down the track you’re going to wake up and realize that it was this work, this commitment, and this action that made you more courageous, more humble, and more empathetic.



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