Have a little faith

Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.– Voltaire
At a recent conference, Andrew Blum from Trium Consulting made a passing comment in a presentation about leaders having faith in themselves.

It was an interesting word that got me thinking.

There are countless articles and books that discuss leadership and confidence (and some of them are even quite good!).  It’s true – you have to have confidence to be an effective leader.

The dictionary definition of confidence describes a state of feeling certain about the truth of something.  When used colloquially, the term implies that there is evidence to support the conclusion and thus confidence is merited.  The word has specific meaning in science; for example, in statistics, we talk about “confidence intervals” which indicate the reliability of an estimate.  Pointedly, it suggests that there is an element of proof required for confidence.

I don’t dispute that.  In an “opinion is fact” world, evidence is a good thing.  Experience, testing, observation, success and failure add up to a body of evidence that can support a sense of confidence.  Leaders need this to not only personally succeed, but to lead others forward.

Confidence is essential and the reason that there are so many books out there on the topic must be because many of us lack it, or believe we lack enough of it.

But hearing the word “faith” in relation to leadership intrigued me because it felt deeper than confidence, deeper than evidence.

It is a belief in the existence of something without the benefit of proof.  Here’s another quote from a transformational leader:

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t see as much written about faith and leadership, especially in a corporate context. But doesn’t it make sense to talk about it?  Companies are in a continuous state of change where new territories, products, services, customers and technologies are rapidly transforming the world we live in.  The old paths are falling away and we face a sometimes exciting, sometimes terrifying future without the time-tested maps to guide us.

When we talk about leadership, we look for certainty.  Somebody with the experience or the point of view to light the torches and inspire us to follow.  Where does that point of view come from when the issue at hand is something that hasn’t been done before?

Leadership development programs include a focus on critical experiences and that’s right.    We can conceive of critical experiences that are tangentially related to the “new” and help build the muscle to deal with the anticipated challenges.  But when it comes to the unanticipated issues – what then?  What do we expect of our leaders then?

I suspect that what we expect, or to be truly honest with ourselves, hope, is that the leader has the innate qualities that will guide them through with intelligence and integrity.

For the leaders themselves, what they need is the confidence, based on their experience, to persevere.  Even better, they have faith in themselves that they can figure it out.  That even without evidence, without experience in this particular challenge, they can take that first step on the unseen staircase.

Perhaps this is too fine a difference to talk about.  But I believe there may be something there.  After all, communication guides recommend using the phrase “I believe” over “I think” in persuasive arguments because it sounds stronger.  It involves the whole person and as such brings much more power to the issue.

I’ll leave it to you to decide.  For me, faith in myself as a leader is something I’ll continue to explore from within.  Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll find some truth when I run out of reason.

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