Choosing Confidence Over Cockiness As a Leader

As a leader, how can you be taken seriously without seeming mean or full of yourself? Leaders (especially women in leadership) are encouraged to be forces of nature in their positions, but there is such a fine line between confident leadership and cocky leadership. How can you concentrate your leadership style on inviting confidence instead of overbearing cockiness? Nicole Arnold, Communications and Public Affairs Manager for an electric cooperative in Asheboro, NC, and a former lobbyist, talks about how she has learned to choose confidence while starting and building her career in politics. (Nicole also recently talked about sharing your faith at work—listen here!)

Tell us a little about yourself!

I have spent the last 20 years building a career in external relations. I have a BA in Public Policy Studies from Duke University and a masters degree in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I’m married with three children and am the Communications and Public Affairs Manager of an electric utility in North Carolina. I handle Government Affairs and Public Relations for the company.  

I grew up in a political family and married an elected official, so I gained practical experience from a young age in some negative aspects of life in the public eye. For instance, I understand how to keep cool in challenging situations, how to handle the press, and how to perform damage control. Dealing with difficult people forged my career path much more than I ever realized it would. Projecting justifiable confidence is key to success in what I do.

In your opinion, why is confidence sometimes perceived as cockiness?

I think it’s easy for all of us to feel uncomfortable in our own skin, to doubt ourselves, and to question whether or not we are handling things in the best way. We are victims of our own insecurities. Confidence is that strength of mind that does not allow you to be defined by your insecurities.

Sometimes others will concoct a story to explain how another person can be confident. “She must have had it easy growing up; she never had it hard; everything has come easy to her;”—these are stories that emanate from envy. These narratives are often not true and always demonstrate a troubling tendency to sabotage the success of others.

Another reason why outside observers define confidence as cockiness is that they are employing (perhaps even without knowing it) a classic debate tactic. They are seeking to discredit their opponent with an ad hominem attack. They are saying, “We don’t need to listen to your ideas,” or “You have no value because you are a bad person.” This emotionally manipulative ploy often bullies women in the workplace by preventing them from speaking up and putting forward excellent ideas. 

Are women more prone to being perceived as cocky instead of confident?  

I definitely think women can be quickly labeled as cocky instead of confident. Somewhere in our socialization, we were taught as girls to be helpful, kind, and nurturing. Likewise, we were taught somewhere along the way that confidence is something related to testosterone. Boys are supposed to grow up to be leaders who draw others to them. There’s nothing wrong with strong boys who grow up to be influential men. It’s what I want for my children.

However, we need to remind ourselves and our children that self-assurance has nothing to do with gender. There is a price for not speaking up or advancing your ideas in the workplace. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it okay to cower in fear and watch as our company moves forward with a terrible strategy? Or is it better to break up groupthink by participating meaningfully in discussions that are worthwhile?”

If we say that we are women of integrity in the workplace, we must have the maturity to put fear aside and lead.

Have you ever dealt with being seen as cocky instead of confident?

Absolutely. I especially got this reaction when I was younger. Growing up, I had teachers tell me that I was too aggressive or, when they were trying to be more positive, that I “stand out.”  Friends’ parents asked me where I got all my self-confidence. While I never viewed myself as more confident than others, I have come to understand that others perceive me differently.  

Even now, I still get comments that I have used my “mom voice” with a reporter or someone who is not quite getting our story straight. I still find it funny that others (even my Mom) say that I am intimidating because I can project an air of authority. If you tend to make sound, snap judgments based on research you took the time to review, then there will always be someone who questions you. But many, many more people will be thankful you are there and will follow your lead.

In order to be a confident leader, what are some steps someone can take to ensure they aren’t seen as cocky? 

This is a really important lesson whose value I underestimated when I was younger in the workplace. The answer is actually very simple: take the time to empathize with others.

Although it’s easy for me to say this, it’s actually asking a lot in today’s harried workplace. So let me be clear. It’s not enough to come up with great ideas and look like a superstar at work.  Without giving people the dignity they deserve, your ideas will be dead on arrival and no one will want to follow your lead.

Put down your phone, be present, listen to others, and seriously contemplate their skills and talents and how they benefit the team—these are musts for someone who wants to engender loyalty as a leader.

I admit I am terribly concerned with efficiency, so taking the time to listen sometimes runs counter to what I believe is best for the project. However, people will give you their best work when they know that you understand and appreciate what they do. Saving time by not acknowledging their role or value may add time to a project or worse, kill it altogether. Take the time and be grateful for the opportunity to be present with others. This will pay dividends.

Those who are confident often don’t require the same amount of recognition that others desire. This is an excellent reason to be generous with praise. It costs you nothing and may mean the world to a coworker.

Anything else you’d like to share?  

Here’s what I do when self-doubt presses down on me: Remember that confidence comes from God. Without Him, we have nothing to anchor us. It is absolutely essential that a Christian businesswoman steeps herself in God’s Word in order to remember these truths daily.

Some verses that come to mind are these:

“…be strong and of good courage.” – Joshua 1:9

“…be confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on completion…” – Philippians 1:6

“Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established.” – Proverbs 16:3 (This verse is currently on a sticky note on my desk.)

Realize that you have a moral imperative to act as a calm and decisive leader in today’s business environment. We do not have a calling that allows us to shirk responsibility or blend in with worldly social mores and dishonest practices. Rather, we have been called to lead others toward the light. Are you radiating the light or are you content to hide under a bushel (Matthew 5:15)?  

Build your confidence muscles. Just like any other skill, building confidence takes practice. Do you have a suggestion or an idea or a question that is relevant and helpful to the discussion at hand? It’s time to ask it – even if you feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t usually do this. It is sad to hear women in the workplace complain about the “way things are” when they had the opportunity to contribute to a different result and did not because of their own insecurities. Don’t let this be you! Practice adding meaningful comments in serious discussions. If you know your facts, you have every right to say something.

Do not always trust your emotions in this process. It’s easy to give in to analysis paralysis and believe that you may not have anything worthwhile to contribute. You must remember that this simply is not true. Without your influence, the world is a far dimmer place. You are a valued and beautiful child of God – important and integral to your team.

As a side note, I should add that this last step may need some extra support from time to time.  As an act of self care, I suggest reading a book that shores up your soul and deepens your appreciation of your role as a woman of faith. Some books I recommend are the following: Get Your Life Back by John Eldridge, Today God Wants You to Know… You Are Beautiful by Valorie Quesenberry, and Jesus Calling by Sarah Young.

Nicole Arnold’s career spans public relations and government affairs activities for corporations. Currently, she is the Communications and Public Affairs Manager for an electric cooperative in Asheboro, NC. Previously, Nicole worked as a lobbyist for the North Carolina Association of REALTORS and spent several years working for political campaigns and community causes.  One of the highlights of Nicole’s career was the privilege of distributing over $1.2 million in aid for victims of natural disasters like Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

Nicole received a Master of Public Administration with a concentration in nonprofit budget and finance from UNC Charlotte and received her Bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Studies from Duke University.  She lives in High Point, NC, with her husband and three children, and enjoys painting, reading, and spending time outdoors whenever she gets the chance.