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November 17, 1997

Heavy Mettle: The Role of Confidence and Optimism in Leadership Effectiveness

By Martin Chemers

Susan is a 35 year old manager who leads a new product development team in a large manufacturing company. She is very confident of her leadership abilities, in part because of her life experiences (she was college class president and captain of the women's volleyball team) and because she seems to be valued and respected in this company. Her team members say that they would "follow her through fire because she believes in herself, she believes in us, and she believes in what we are doing."

This illustration reveals some of the essential characteristics of a highly effective leader. Effective leaders are confident in their leadership ability. They offer a compelling vision that can mobilize the energies and commitment of their teammates, and they have the interpersonal skills to motivate and focus that energy and commitment. Let's take a closer look at the key features of outstanding leadership and at the circumstances that allow a person to release the power of their full potential in the leadership role.

Research on organizations indicates that effective leaders are characterized by three elements. First, they look like leaders. That is, they possess traits and behaviors that people associate with leadership. The most important of these traits are integrity and competence. Of course, some people expect all leaders to look and act like John Wayne, which makes leadership harder for women and minority group members who may not look like the traditional, stereotype of a manager, i.e., a European-American man. Luckily, the most important trait a leader can possess is honesty, and that is the one attribute that is totally under our own control.

The second aspect of effective leaders is an ability to develop motivating and satisfying relationships with followers. An important component of this ability is the capacity to understand the individual needs and capabilities of each follower. The leader needs to be able to judge what kind of guidance and support the follower needs to grow and develop in the job. Since each person is different and progresses through different stages, both in life and on the job, the leader must be sensitive to each follower as an individual.

Finally, highly effective leaders know how to use the skills, knowledge, and energy of team members to accomplish the task and mission. The leader must provide a clear and compelling vision to guide the team toward the goal and must model the level of commitment, perseverance, and resilience necessary for mission accomplishment.

My own recent research indicates that all three of these elements are dramatically affected by the leader's confidence in his or her leadership ability and by the leader's optimism that events will work out well for those who put in the effort. I call the combination of confidence and optimism "mettle." The dictionary gives synonyms for mettle as character or spirit, and the term "on one's mettle" means aroused to do one's best. Mettle is the key to releasing one's leadership power. Confident and optimistic leaders set high goals and work diligently to achieve them. They can cope with stress and adversity because they have faith that things will work out well.

We have found "high mettle" leaders to perform very effectively in military organizations, sports teams, government departments, and corporate environments. They convey a positive leadership image, their self confidence allows them to be fair and non-defensive with others, and their willingness to "stay the course" in the face of difficulty helps them to get the most out of team resources despite the natural "ups and downs" of organizational life.

How does a leader develop mettle? One source of confidence and optimism comes from a successful history of accomplishment. Early in life, parents and teachers help to build feelings of efficacy by setting high expectations and providing opportunities to participate in significant family and community tasks. Later, organizations can help individuals to develop mettle by providing leadership opportunities in a supportive environment. Individuals can also work to recognize their own strengths and maintain a positive attitude. Leadership performance can be a cycle in which a confident outlook breeds success (through high goals, high effort, and perseverance), and success enhances future confidence.

Organizations can also help individuals to develop mettle by making them feel accepted and valued. Positive attitudes towards all members of an organization can provide the feelings of self worth and integration that buttress mettle and leadership effectiveness. Great organizations breed great leaders like Susan.

Martin Chemers is dean of social sciences. He wrote this column for the San Francisco Examiner.

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