Why Leaders Need to Be Indifferent May 9 2013

A couple of months ago, I was talking with an executive leader I’ve known for a few years. One of the things I’ve noticed about him in that time is that his confidence has grown in a very appropriate and admirable way. I mentioned this to him and, in reply, he laughed softly and said, “It’s a fine line between confidence and indifference.”

That’s one of the best lines I’ve heard in recent memory because it’s funny and it’s true. Like most things that are funny, there’s an element of truth and recognition to it. The connection between confidence and indifference is that the right amount of indifference can lead to confidence. And the confidence that comes from indifference makes you a more effective leader.

Here’s what I mean by that:

When you’re so attached to a particular outcome that you can’t imagine anything else, it’s easy to feel fear. If you feel fear, it’s going to show and you’ll project a lack of confidence. That lack of confidence, in turn, makes it more likely that you won’t achieve the outcome that was so important to you in the first place.

If, on the other hand, you can maintain a level of non-attachment to a particular outcome, you can stay more relaxed by believing in the idea that if one path doesn’t work out, you’ll find another one that will. That’s what I think my friend meant when he said there’s a fine line between confidence and indifference. He cares a lot about doing a good job, but has learned that there is more than one way to accomplish that. A few years ago, I read a great book by a guy named Herb Cohen called Negotiate This!: By Caring, But Not T-H-A-T Much. As I remember it, Cohen’s main message was that if you get too attached to a particular outcome as a negotiator, you’re going to lose. The same thing is true for leaders. You have to be indifferent enough to stay open to the range of options and outcomes available to you. Believing that you have options raises your confidence. Confidence (but not overconfidence) makes you a more effective leader.

What’s your take on the connection between confidence and indifference? Jedi mind trick or something more grounded than that? What role does confidence play in your effectiveness as a leader?

7 Responses to “Why Leaders Need to Be Indifferent”

  1. Lori says:

    There is again a yoga lesson here – the 5th Yama: Aparigraha, or "non-grasping." Many people associate it with material possessions, but in purest form it is about not trying to control more than you need to. Love your column.
    Shanti from a budding leader and yoga devotee-

  2. Jennifer V. Miller says:


    What a brilliant distinction! One of the best ways I heard to describe the concept you're exploring is "commit fully to the process, but detach from the outcome". This comes from the book The PRIMES. As you point out, when leaders (or anybody, really) attach so emotionally to an outcome, they wrap up their "worth" or identity in it and aren't able to objectively assess when things go south.

    Also love Lori's comment about going deeper with this idea of attachment and control. Powerful stuff!

  3. Susan Amey says:

    Great points here. I would add that in the day-to-day of working with colleagues, to appear committed to a specific outcome but indifferent to the relationship can spell your eventual demise. There must be balance.

  4. Hermine says:

    This is true and I love the "there's a fine line between confidence and indifference". When you attach yourself to a certain outcome or way of achieving that outcome, it's like putting blinders on – you effectively block out any other influence that might give you that "Aha!" moment.

    But, when you maintain an air of confidence that you will be able to achieve something no matter what it takes, you also put blinders on. The difference is where your focus is.

    Are you focusing on the outcome or the path that gets you there?

  5. Greg Marcus says:

    I agree completely. If you care too much it can cloud your judgement, and lead to fear and anxiety. The best manager I ever worked with told me his secret. "Greg, I don't really care. I want to do a good job and be successful, but if something happens at work it just isn't that big a deal to me."
    This attitude allowed him to keep his head when others were panicking, and he always was the first one to suggest a path to a solution.

  6. Tarek Krayem says:

    I had one experience in my business that I used this strategy without intention and the result was amazing.
    But this way should be used by a person who is really confident with his abilities, skills and background. Because it is so easy for experienced managers and leaders to discover the person who is faking this out and pretending to be indifferent or even confident.
    I think that this important article should not be read by anyone, because it may cause problems for weak professionals by misusing it.

  7. Kevin S. Ford says:

    New article, old ideas. Bruce Lee said "be like water" & this concept is readily apparent by observers of many different martial art styles. The idea of "detachment" in many Eastern philosophies is akin to the author's assertion, the author uses "non-attachment" but the concepts are similar. Water adapts to the environment–if it is in a test tube, it will be thin; in a pool it will be wide and deep. Moreover, the same water that can harden an egg can soften a carrot. The message here is that leadership requires one to essentially "be like water" to successfully navigate the stresses and demands of the modern coporate landscape. I think that a tacit message here is that "Confidence (but not overconfidence) makes you a more effective leader." One may be indifferent or not but success breeds confidence and leaders must remain humble to keep overconfidence from creeping in and causing mistakes.

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