Are you confident? The answer matters a lot. For those of us needing to bring leadership and innovation to a quickly changing field—and that’s all of us working in libraries at every level—it is very important. For those of us who interact with kids, it likely matters even more to model confidence, and foster it in them.
All this came up for me on a flight to Nashville, Tennessee for SLJ’s second Public Library Leadership Think Tank held April 25. The cover of The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap,” grabbed me. In it, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, upon the launch of The Confidence Code (HarperBusiness, 2014), describe a persisting lack of self-confidence in women in the workplace and its varied impacts. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence,” they write. The whys of that statement are complex, but, in short, it’s largely because women allow insecurity to stop them more often than men do—and hence miss opportunities.
Importantly, Kay and Shipman define confidence as more complex than cocky self-assurance. They write:
Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”
While other factors from courage to creativity play into action as well, Petty says confidence is essential because it applies in more situations. As Kay and Shipman explain, “It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.”
The discussion continued in a response by David Brooks in the New York Times (“The Problem with Confidence”) and less directly in a story on overconfidence and entrepreneurship by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker (“Epic Fails of the Startup World”). The theme took a compelling leap, however, when it extended to the next generation in Paul Tough’s New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate?” Tough illustrates how important it is to help disadvantaged kids develop the confidence they need to persist in school. Students even briefly exposed to the idea that they belong in school and that their efforts can make them smarter had dramatically better outcomes. Confidence may just be a great equalizer.
In my mind, all this blended with the perspective brought by Gretchen Caserotti, the director of Idaho’s Meridian Library District, in her keynote at the Think Tank. She was there to talk about leadership, and, naturally, confidence came up. An apparently confident person, she admitted to feeling a bit like an imposter in her new role as director. But, she placed insecurity in perspective, articulating a self-awareness that has helped foster self-assurance, and acknowledging that her confidence has fueled her in the face of new challenges. That self-awareness, echoing the deeper definition of confidence above, has helped her do the work needed for her community. “Being strongly self-centered,” she said, “is a base for being other-centered.” Library work requires a whole different level of other-centeredness.
This stance directly impacts how she leads. In her career, she has not been worried by not knowing something. She didn’t “fake it until she made it.” Instead, she reached out. She gained mentors in the field not because she asked for mentorship, she said, but because she asked people for help and they gave it. Such insight into the power of vulnerability as opportunity shows how to make doubt help build stronger skills and connections. Those who engage effectively with their insecurities may just be able to use them to know when to slow down, seek counsel, reevaluate, and then act, avoiding the pitfalls of too-much risk-taking that overconfidence can cause. They can stop worrying about the gaps in their experience and instead believe that they can effectively work to fill them.
I’m not sure if one must be confident to be a leader, but I am sure that leaders don’t let insecurity hamper them. The role of confidence is worth understanding as we all work to lead our libraries forward.
Rebecca T. Miller