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Anna Smith

I agree with Kelley - very fascinating topic. Whenever I was harboring private doubts (as a unit manager at Waffle House), it helped me to talk about those - either with staff or friends. 'You're only as sick as your secrets.'
When my staff was able to help find solutions, I was happy to talk to them about my doubts. When I felt I could improve morale by showing unshakable confidence, I turned to fellow unit managers or friends to 'vent' my doubts and to put things into perspective.

Wally Bock

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock


I have on occasion prefaced decisions with something like, "I don't know which path is best, but I do know that either one of them beats where we are now, so I'm picking A and we'll test against (compare against, re-examine our options...) once we understand how much better A is than current state." It lets me be confident and at the same time be transparent and help my team understand that it's ok to move forward when I/they don't have all the answers.


"The most talented development teams I work with all have a finely tuned 'bullshit meter' and will quickly challenge any unsubstantiated confidence, especially on the part of 'management'."

I agree with the general tenants of this post. However the excerpt I list above from the comment Bob posted for chrisf rings very true to me.

I manage development employees. Earlier in my career I worked for a startup consulting firm at the height of the dot-com boom. When it went bust the CEO of our company regularily talked about the pipeline of contracts we were working on signing. He talked about how the economy had dipped but things were looking up and in some short time period like 4-6 weeks we would be getting lots of new business again. This was while we had a large number of consultants 'sitting on the bench' getting paid by the company and doing no work.

I had a lot of confidence in this CEO when I started (I was the second person hired at the firm and by this time we probably had 20).

His confidence in the company future and the economy when there was plenty of reason to think otherwise was not believable. I eventually left the company because I lost all my confidence in the wisdom of the CEO. The company survived but it lost a lot of good people at that time.

Confidence has to be believable. You cannot use confidence as a replacement for addressing people's real concerns in an honest way. If you do, that confidence quickly begins to look like incompetence.

Bob Sutton

Thanks to everyone for the great comments. here is another one from Chrisf that came via email, as there was some technical problem with posting it:

A cardinal rule in refereeing soccer matches is "Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and always confident." Without that approach both the players and spectators are more likely to turn on the referee and the match can easily get out of hand.

The environment at my organization, where I manage a team of over a dozen knowledge workers, is a bit more complex though. If I have done my job right and hired talented, motivated people, then the notion that I hold the answers simply cannot apply. I may have the benefit of experience, but I see it as my key responsibility to leverage the collective wisdom of the team in a healthy and supportive environment, which includes effective processes.

I am routinely approached to help make key decisions, for example when the team is deadlocked. It is in such situations that the soccer referee rule applies and where I find Andy Grove's advice to be very apropos. Transparency exists in that the team is engaged with me, and I have actually had very good results in starting such discussions with "I don't know either, but let's figure it out", confident in my ability to arrive at an answer in collaboration.

Someone once explained that managing knowledge workers, especially software engineers, was fundamentally different from managing other types of teams (I wish I could find the article to cite). The most talented development teams I work with all have a finely tuned 'bullshit meter' and will quickly challenge any unsubstantiated confidence, especially on the part of 'management'. My recommendation is to tread carefully in this area, because once lost, it is near impossible to regain the trust of a team.

Ron Gentile

Having run a startup, I know this issue firsthand. There is a great balancing act between transparency and motivation. There is also a balancing act between humility and managing. I've had a couple examples where humility has been interpreted by some staff as an invitation to expect complete democracy. I had to remind them that my job is to gather all the information I can and then to make the best decisions possible based on available information.

Regarding your dilemma, things change fast in the world, especially in business and especially in startups. If the leader shared every micro-thought they had every day/every hour about the business going forward they would confuse the heck out of the staff, and probably themselves too. Instead they have to realize that there are many ups/downs and trust their long term plan until evidence suggests that plan won't work and then modify an execute again. Stay on course in your own mind and in your message to your team.

DC Jobs

I was reading somewhere else about arguments regarding transparency and leadership and someone made an interesting point using Winston Churchill as their example.

They said that as PM, Churchill received top secret and confidential war reports on a daily basis. Some of those reports obviously boded well for England's prospects and others did not.

The writer argued that it would have been foolish for Churchill to share (and be totally transparent) regarding the nature of those reports with the British public since toward his goal of leading his people through the circumstances they found themselves in, part of his job as to keep up their moral.

Joseph Lira

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Wow, you post hit home with my work in Information Technology. In my experience, most end users want a definitive answer; not necessarily a correct one. Thus they tend to believe their 15 year old nephew who says the company's system sucks (even though he could not tell you the difference between an Enterprise system and a gaming console) over the administrator with ten years experince on the system, who will not give an answer without knowing the facts.

Rodney Johnson

Bob, my concern regarding the confident boss relates to its impact on feedback loops. If the confident boss "appears" less willing to receive feedback, then confidence interferes. However if feedback loops are in place and trusted, I believe confidence will fit in your framework.

Its been my experience that too few bosses that have confidence have an effective and trusted feedback loop from which to leverage.

Kelley Eskridge

Fascinating topic.

One notion I have is that confidence and transparency do not have to be at odds if a leader is also able to handle her own mistakes confidently in public. In other words (and to paraphrase one of your principles that I like best, Bob): lead as if you know you're right, and when you're wrong, lead as though you know how to learn from that, and know how to correct the course quickly and with minimal damage.

When I'm a team member, I don't need my boss to be right all the time, but I do need to believe that she is capable of, and willing to, become right. Transparency sends the message, "I am willing." Confidence sends the message, "I am able." I think good bosses are both.

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