Ever heard the phrase ‘cool, calm and collected’? I used to hear that a lot growing up. It seemed so ‘put together’ and like the world would just work for me if I achieved that somehow. After-all, calmness was not something I was known for early on in my life! People used to assume I was excited or stressed, even when I wasn’t because I have so many ideas, and I was often impatient and wanted to get things done.
But I’ve since learnt, that there is something behind that phrase. The idealised outcome of having it all, being calm, appearing in control and ‘collected’, is achievable. And not only achievable but essential if you want to be a great leader.
I’ve since modified it to being ‘Calm, Competent and Confident’. Or as one of my clients recently pointed out to me ‘Toni’s 3 C’s of leadership and business success’.
But what do I really mean by this, and why is it essential for leadership success?
Being perceived as calm, competent and confident is essential if you want to be a great leader.
Early on in my career I was definitely not viewed as calm. I generally have tens of ideas at any one time in my head, often far more. I get inspired by those around me about the possibilities of what could be done and achieved, and if I’m passionate about something I just want to get it all done. A few years ago, I would share all of those ideas with those around me, all the time. And my introvert personality made that even worse because I wouldn’t just let it out as it came, but I’d bottle it up until it seemed that of course we HAVE TO discuss this. And it would just flow like an avalanche. So I’d share, with my family, my team, anyone who I thought I could trust. Why wouldn’t I? These were the people that were going to make it happen! These were the people to bounce ideas off to help get to the best possible outcome. We were all in it together.
I began to accept that I had a reputation for being ‘overly enthusiastic’ and maybe just a little stressed-out. Funnily enough, when I’m stressed I actually stay quiet and appear calm! But that is a story for another day!
Then I realised that there were some opportunities not coming my way. It wasn’t that I was unreliable, but that I was just not seen as the calmest pair of hands, though no one ever told me this (I wish they had!).
And then I had two major insights.
The first was with my husband. My husband and I worked in the same industry at the time, and we would routinely problem-solve work stuff together, even though we didn’t work on the same projects, as we had different backgrounds and therefore different insights. It was (and continues to be) an amazing asset to both of our careers. But I began to notice that although my husband was amazing at letting me talk through the millions of things that would come into my head about something I cared about, when I presented a million (or even just 10) ideas about something he was trying to figure out, particularly if it was something stressing him out, the conversations quickly deteriorated. I realised I had to start backing off and not brainstorming to solve his problems unless that is what he needed at that particular moment in time. The verbal avalanche had to be controlled for his benefit. The conversation wasn’t about me, but helping him through an issue. My issues he supported my brainstorming need 100%. This may seem obvious, but I genuinely never went about life aiming to be selfish or just talk about me, but my ideas for trying to solve problems can be overwhelming to even the sanest and most understanding person in my life. Then I realised I was doing this with the other people around me too! Not quite as intense perhaps, but it was there.
The second insight came when I worked with someone who appeared to trust my opinion but one day just stopped listening. I had been using this person (senior to me at the time) as a sounding board for all sorts of ideas for how we could do amazing things. The thing was, to start with that meant that the project changed direction all the time. I pointed this out because my intention hadn’t been to change direction but to explore what direction we should be taking. And all of a sudden I was no longer the trusted advisor I had worked so hard to become.
Suddenly, I realised that although I love to brainstorm, explore and develop ideas with others that I trust, that my intentions are not always obvious. That it can de-rail progress if it isn’t clear what my intention of the discussion is. I might be thinking we are having a good exploration session with you while you think that I’m suggesting we should absolutely do everything I’ve mentioned. In the worst-case scenario my attitude of ‘let’s discuss’ can come across as disorganised and damaging. And it negatively impacted my reputation as rightly or wrongly I was viewed as less competent than the individual thought I was initially. Maybe that person should have realised what was going on earlier, after all I was not in charge! But I knew I wanted a leadership role, so I knew I had to work on this.
I had to pay attention to what I was saying. AND, I had to start staying in a zone of expressing calm unless there was a general expectation of ‘let’s solve this’.
Just controlling which of the millions of ideas I have each day are shared has made me a better problem solver and a better leader. I appear less chaotic. I think things through more so I have better reasons for the one or two things I do share, building respect, trust in my ideas and competence. And I avoid the pitfall of developing an idea while also talking about it for the first time – a pitfall I used to routinely fall into! A part formed idea is never going to go down well in a strategy meeting unless the goal of the meeting is to come up with as many varied strategies as possible! Developing an idea while explaining it at the same time confuses people! BUT I still have those millions of ideas (because hey, my brain doesn’t turn off!) so I have them if I need them.
A few years ago I was surprised when some said to me ‘I don’t know how you are so calm in this situation’ at an event we were running together, given that at previous similar events I had not felt any more or less calm, but had been told that I appeared stressed. The feelings inside me hadn’t changed a whole lot. I wasn’t super stressed or overly excited in the past. I just let my ideas and my enthusiasm for sharing ideas, brainstorming and getting things done to drive my behaviour. But I’d shifted my attitude and mindset to one where I demonstrated calmness and competency. And suddenly those around me trusted me more.
Competency may seem an obvious leadership trait, but it still needs to be nurtured. And a very large part of that nurturing comes from creating a place of calm. The calmness allows you to focus on believing in your own competence, creating focus to build your competence by listening, developing the right skills, learning the most important things, and focusing on the most important task. If you don’t feel calm, you won’t be able to focus on what is most important to build your competence.
And when you are calm, people will perceive that you are more competent and you will grow your confidence.
Many, if not all of the leaders I work with at some point need to work on their confidence. Some more than others, but all of us at some point have a confidence issue.
It isn’t really surprising: impostor syndrome affects most of us at some point in our lives. As you push beyond your boundaries, up-level your game, and take on more responsibilities, your impostor syndrome, inner critique and self doubt all come together in a perfect storm to take away your confidence.
But confidence is what allows us to make decisions, get behind them and sleep at night, returning to work refreshed and able to make good decisions. As soon as your confidence drops, you worry more, lose sleep, have fewer resources for decision-making and suddenly end up in a downward spiral of dropping confidence.
Confidence helps you stay calm and communicate effectively.
Confidence gives you the mental energy to focus on the thing that is most important to build the essential competencies to be the best you can be with limited time and resources.
Confidence is what makes people trust you.
And trust is really why being calm, competent and confident is important. As a leader, you need to inspire, provide guidance, be decisive and get a group of people to follow you so that you can all achieve great things. But if no one trusts you, you aren’t really leading anyone and you are limited by what you can achieve on your own (which even if you are extraordinary is still less than what a group or team can achieve).
So try assessing how calm, competent and confident you are. Both from within, and what you portray to the world. Are you serving yourself, your loved ones, friends and colleagues as well as you could from a place of calmness, competence and confidence? Do you slow down before those millions of thoughts get shared and make sure that now is the right place and audience to brainstorm?
Try building in a calmness session into each day. If you do meditation or yoga, use those as a tool to build a sense of calm. Alternative use journaling or your go-to relaxation technique. Then ask yourself, could I and should I be calmer? Could I give myself more competence by focusing on one thing? Could I demonstrate my competence more clearly? How can I build confidence in my own abilities and get my team to trust me even more?