Why Leaders Need to Be Indifferent

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?