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The Confidence Bank

Leadership guru Guy Howley on the impact of being confident.


Strategist Confidence clipping

International leadership trainer Guy Howley presents the first of a series of personal insights into the importance of inspiring confidence in yourself and in others.


September 2003: Kofi Annan took to the stage at the United Nations in New York. The mood of the gathering was solemn, as it commemorated the loss of life in the August 19 terrorist attack on the UN Assistance Mission in Baghdad – an attack on what Annan called the entire UN “family”.

Among the 22 dead was the UN’s Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Annan introduced de Mello’s fellow Brazilian, musician Gilberto Gil, as “someone who can lift us all out of sorrow”. At this, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and, at the time, Brazilian Minister of Culture, walked onstage, sat down and addressed the audience with some arresting words: “We are changing now,” he said. “We chant together.”

Gil sang the first line of what was to be an anthem to peace – an instantly memorable melody – once. He waved his hand to the audience, once. On cue, the entire gathering responded, filling the cavernous UN General Assembly Hall with song as they sang the simple tune back to him, a melody unknown to most delegates only seconds before.

Here is a video of the event:

CLICK: Kofi Annan and Gilberto Gil, 2003

Seven words; a memorable hook; a quick and assured gesture: the right person with the right message at the right time.

Why this story is important

In the course of my work, I see business and organisational leaders in action at conferences throughout the world – fortunately in less tragic circumstances than those that faced Gil a decade ago in Manhattan.

But in these tough times, employees want the same things from their managers that Gil offered the UN at that moment: sound judgement; sensitivity; vision; inspiration; and the ability to draw people together and change their mood for the better.

Strategist Web 1

Gilberto Gil, as he appears in our print Issue #1

The UN gathering took place at an extraordinary time and in a context of human suffering and loss. The problems of some companies, perhaps, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in a crazy world” by comparison, but being the right person with the right message at the right time is a sign of strong, principled leadership.

The stakes are high, after all, as the careers and livelihoods of hundreds or thousands of people may hang in the balance.

We hear the phrase a lot today, but at such times, ‘emotional intelligence’ (let’s define it as a blend of empathy and common sense) is vital for every organisation’s leader. As is being confident and able to inspire the same level of confidence in other people.

But why is that so important? Because in challenging times, people wait with a heightened sense of expectation for their leader’s message. They don’t want smoke and mirrors; they want the truth. But also something more: a glimpse of the future and a plan for getting there. Crises should galvanise an organisation, not expose its weaknesses, and it is up to leaders to make sure that happens.

No emotional intelligence

Fast-forward to Spring 2013 in Paris, where the CEO of a world-leading energy company is being ushered onto a conference rostrum in front of 200 young managers – executives who have each been identified and groomed for their leadership potential.

This is the organisation’s management team of the future and each of these ambitious executives expects a lesson in how to inspire an audience and lead from the front, no matter what the economy might be doing.

But what they get is something different. For 20 solid minutes the CEO is downbeat, boring and uninspiring. He tells the audience what they already know, and what much of the Western world has known about their own organisations for five years or more: that times are tough; that customers are hard to keep; that market demand and revenues have been down – implying the need for a leaner workforce.

After this, he spends four or five minutes at most on other business, fields a couple of questions, and is ushered away – shoulders hunched and head down – towards a waiting car, where he’s briefed on his next encounter. Even if this CEO had felt confident within himself, his body language said ‘defeat’.

Consider what the short-, medium- and long-term implications of such a speech might be: not just chatter in the aisles, but also the clatter of CVs being typed by dozens of talented men and women who are each full of ideas and promise – future innovators that the company has trained and funded, but who may now be contemplating a future somewhere else.

At the coffee stands, the chatter has already begun. “Where was the vision?,” they ask each other during the break. “Does he even have one?”

News of such a speech will filter through any organisation and disunity will be the result, as people begin following their own agendas. That organisation will have been needlessly depressed and deflated.

The CEO will have forgotten that he or she is there to lead, to marshall their forces, to represent the values of the organisation, and to set a strategic vision for the future. In one fell swoop, that leader will not only have sucked the air out of the room, but also alarmed and disappointed the organisation’s next generation of leaders, leaving them feeling anxious and disenfranchised.

Common factors

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What these two stories have in common (besides being true) is adverse circumstances – albeit of a different order of magnitude. In the first, a charismatic human being emerged who realised that the task before him was to bring people together and galvanise their spirits.

In the second, a business leader wasted an opportunity to do the same and, as a result, achieved the opposite. He lacked the confidence to make a change.

Sometimes C-level executives need to deliver bad news; everybody knows that. But bad news can be delivered well if it is explained honestly and transparently, if it is put in context, and, crucially, attached to a vision that the organisation can support and work towards.

The absence of vision – or of the time taken to explain your vision – will be noticed all the way from the boardroom to the postroom and the reception desk.

Take the following example: Offshore outsourcing (‘offshoring’) often emerges within organisations as a strategy to cut costs at home. News of such a move tends to be badly handled internally, and this is often a trigger for staff rebellion and industrial action.

Recent examples are legion within the UK, and the result for a range of companies – CSC and O2, for example – has been damaged reputations among some domestic customers. Here’s a recent example:

CLICK: CSC was mired in controversy in 2012

Organisations may not be able to make employment guarantees to staff, but vague expressions of appreciation, of intentions to protect onshore workforces, often characterise offshoring deals. But without a transparent strategy to make those promises a reality, they can worsen employees’ fears and lead to anger and scepticism – and that risks the strategy failing.

Outsourcing researcher Dr Angelika Zimmermann of Loughborough University’s Centre for Global Sourcing and Services (CGSS) interviewed employees of a large electronics firm headquartered in Germany, including middle managers and C-level executives. All worked from head office in virtual teams with colleagues based in a wholly owned subsidiary in India, and it was to that subsidiary that work was to be offshored.

At the firm, business leaders took time out to explain not only the immediate strategy but also the vision and the context behind it. After their presentation, an interviewee said, “It’s very clear that we will keep the core competence over here. We have two new colleagues who were employed this year.

“That was a clear signal to us: ‘We want to invest over here, as well.’ We have a cooperation model that is designed for the long term, with a strong core over here and additional competence and capacity in India. People do absolutely accept this.”

Such attitudes can only be an asset to the organisation and will help a programme succeed, but they can be fostered and encouraged by transparent, honest, proactive management and negotiation.

Hidden problems

A lack of vision and strong leadership sometimes only comes to light when problems arise, and a healthy economy can mask leadership problems within any organisation.

Before serial financial crises hit, confidence was like the first mug of tea or coffee in the morning: expected, routine, almost automatic. At that time, if the business was doing well, even a poor leader or an uninspiring speaker could turn up with Powerpoint slides of year-on-year growth figures and show orders were in the pipeline.

In leaner times, confidence is thinner on the ground as market models shift and customers disappear, taking with them some of the organisation’s reference points and comfort zones. But sometimes confidence is all an organisation needs to move forward and pacify employees, customers, investors and stakeholders.

Take the technology sector on the US West Coast. This sector is notorious for having given the world a generation of bullish, charismatic leaders over the years: Ellison, Jobs, Gerstner, Chambers, Siebel, and the rest. Here’s one of the most inspiring examples:

CLICK: Steve Jobs’ legendary speech at Stanford

To European eyes, some can appear more like carnival showmen than business leaders, but their confidence is undeniable and sometimes attractive. That can be all it takes to stop investors from taking flight. Its absence – consider the popular perception of Apple losing its way after Steve Jobs’ death – can be conspicuous.

Jobs is now held in such high esteem that his memory is in danger of falling victim to the same reality distortion that critics accused him of creating during his lifetime. But his achievements in co-founding Apple and then returning in 1996 to lead it on to become the US’ most valuable company speak for themselves.

But whatever one thinks of Apple’s products, one thing that everyone agrees about is that Jobs understood people’s emotional attachment to technology – and employees’ emotional attachment to the organisation that they work for – better than most.

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West Coast spirituality

Jobs credited his personal connection with his work to his devotion to Zen Buddhism, and he was particularly close to the teachings of the late Sÿtÿ priest, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who became head of the Haiku Zen Center in Los Altos, California (and later presided over Jobs’ marriage to Laurene Powell).

In more cynical Europe, this ‘spiritual’ approach to business is regarded with suspicion, but it’s certainly true that Kobun persuaded Jobs to dedicate himself with passion to what he liked doing most – a simple idea that Jobs passed on to others.

“When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher?” asked Kobun. The student replied: “Everything!” Kobun paused, then said: “No. You.” (Joan Halifax Roshi)

So, in these leaner times, when sovereign debt crises stalk Europe and public services are still being cut to the bone, how can leaders set the best example? Integrity, vision, competence and courage are essential for all leaders and decision-makers, especially in a crisis.

Perhaps there’s no better illustration of the enduring importance of these qualities than the recent history of Japan.

Shinzo Abe

Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe: a new Reagan rises in the East.


In terms of economic confidence, the sun had stopped rising over Tokyo for two decades prior to March 11, 2011. But it took more than that day’s force 9.0 Tÿhoku earthquake, the next day’s aftershocks, a 10-metre tsunami, many thousands of deaths, and partial reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant to bring Tokyo’s inhabitants out onto the streets in protest.

That happened because the then government, together with nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), were perceived to be complacent, to be hiding information about the true extent of radiation leaks and contamination, and to be lacking in all four of the aforementioned qualities.

Three years on, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – elected with a large majority in 2012 – is seen within his country as embodying the principles that his predecessors lacked, despite being regarded in many other quarters – especially China – as a dangerous right-wing nationalist and militarist.

CLICK: China protests against Abe (NewsLoop)

His ‘Abenomics’ policy of reflation through monetary easing and fiscal stimulus is credited with reigniting economic growth, with 14 of Japan’s 27 largest exporters beating their own full-year profit forecasts by five per cent or more, according to Bloomberg.

There are serious challenges ahead for Japan – such as whether those levels of growth are sustainable and whether the corporate beneficiaries of his policies will help to stimulate the wider economy and alleviate poverty among ordinary Japanese people.

But significantly, consumer confidence and the domestic spending that accompanies it have returned to Japan. And this is despite the total cost of the multiple problems that have afflicted the country being estimated at $235 billion (£154 billion), making Tÿhoku the costliest natural disaster in history.

 CLICK: A concise explanation of Abenomics (BBC)

It will take more than rhetoric from Abe – now as divisive a figure on the world stage as Thatcher or Bush before him – to continue inspiring confidence in his own people, who have given him an approval rating of 70 per cent.

But for the Japanese people, a leader’s confidence in himself has inspired the same quality in them in the wake of some catastrophic events. The Japanese people feel empowered and united when previously they felt disenfranchised. However, the wider impact of this is a spread of alarm and unease among the international community.

Which brings us back to Gilberto Gil. When Kofi Annan presented him to the United Nations in New York on that day a decade ago, the then-UN Secretary General described him as a man with the ability to “empower and move people”.

In July 2013, Gil was interviewed on the release of a full-length documentary, Viramundo, about his belief in the power of music and cultural diversity and his hopes for a more interconnected planet. He was asked about how he engages with and inspires confidence in the people he meets. His response was simple: “It happens at the emotional level.” That belief is now shared by many of the world’s leading organisations.

CLICK: Gilberto Gil’s ‘Viramundo’ trailer

Clear global trends

I spend much of my time partnering global corporations who seek support and guidance as they endeavour to identify and engender new business models and skills in their managers worldwide.

And if there is one theme that has emerged in recent years, it is change management – not what to change, but how to change. The key, they believe, is that change needs to come from within and this is deeply connected to confidence.

From Paris to Boston, from Barcelona to Singapore, HR steering committees are increasingly concerned with ensuring that local managers feel more confident in themselves and, therefore, more able to inspire the confidence in others that’s essential to manage change successfully.

Most now recognise that confidence and emotional intelligence are core to change management, along with the tools and the personal development programmes that are necessary to achieve them.

Borrowing from Anna Freud, one of the founders of child psychology, the challenge can be summed up thus: Strength and confidence should be encouraged to come from within, and not from without. In other words, inner strength and confidence need to be nurtured; they cannot be decreed.

But many of today’s leaders, raised at a time when emotional skills were either seen as secondary or even as inappropriate, find themselves vulnerable and unsure of themselves on such subjective ground.

In a boom economy, poor leaders can be hidden by the upward momentum of the market, but in leaner times their real character is visible to all.

Steve Jobs recognised that in order to inspire confidence in others, a leader and the products, services or ideas must create an emotional link, not just with the public but also within the internal organisation. Shinzo Abe recognises this, and Gilberto Gil knows it too.

In the current economic climate, understanding people’s emotional need and above all, their need to feel confident – cannot be underestimated. TS

The Strategist says

• Employees want to work in an organisation that has a clear destination and a plan for getting there. • It is a leader’s job to set an agenda confidently and to take his or her organisation on that journey. • In tough times, people need to be brought together and inspired. • They also need to be told the truth and given the context for current events. • Internal gossip and office politics will swiftly fill the vacuum if there’s no coherent vision in place. • Leaders need to nurture the next generation of managers, and inspire them just as much as the most junior employee. • Those managers need to be motivated to stay and build their careers within the organisation. • Don’t be afraid of talented ambitious people beneath you. They are your organisation’s future, and you should be confident enough to have them working for you.• How to change is as important as what to change.
After a successful career in sales management and business development, Guy Howley works as a consultant and coach with business leaders throughout the world on areas such as change management and personal development, helping them to communicate across cultural and personal boundaries.
Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.



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