Leadership FOR Confidence

If it’s all about confidence (see Jan. 27 post) then what role do leaders play in creating the foundation for confidence? In Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggests that as leaders, we are responsible for both the hard and the soft of leadership – the structure and the soul as she puts it.  As school or district leaders, this is how we create the foundation of confidence for our teachers.  Kanter writes:

Leadership is not about the leader, it is about how he or she builds the confidence of everyone else. Leaders are responsible for both the big structures that serve as the cornerstones of confidence, and for the human touches that shape a positive emotional climate to inspire and motivate people.

The hard of leadership is providing the structure, the systems and the routines that create a consistent experience for the adults we work with.  It’s about sharpening the collective vision and creating purposeful opportunities for everyone to be involved in the development of that vision.  The hard of leadership is about establishing predictability in how things are done and ensuring that the vision for the school or district remains clear.

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success.  Leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. (Stephen Covey)

The soft of leadership is the soul – the human touches – that deepen relationships, establish trust, and create a collective loyalty toward the team and the vision of success.  It’s the little things that make people feel valued, encouraged, and confident that they are part of something important.  As much as we drive the vision (hard) we must come in behind that vision with support (soft). 

My take on what Kanter suggests has always been that No one gets off the hook, but no one should be left unsupported.  Let’s break that into two parts.

First, no one gets off the hook. As leaders, we have to establish an environment where no one gets a pass on being current.  We wouldn’t accept that in so many other professions – surgeons, lawyers – and teachers are no exception.  Of course you can’t make someone change.  The point is that you, as the leader, never waver from the expectations that teachers be the very best they can be and that their practices reflect what we now know about learning.  It’s not okay to opt out; it’s not okay to take a pass.

However, no one should be left unsupported. For some, change is difficult and we must be patient as people come to terms with what the vision of the school is asking of them.  We have to support our teachers by removing the barriers (real or perceived) that keep them from taking the first step.  We have to recognize that everyone is along the change continuum and it may take time for some to come along with us.  That has to be okay. Some people need more support; others are more independent.  As leaders, we must recognize the individual needs and have reasonable expectations for when they will put both feet in. Maybe they are not sure they can do it; maybe they don’t want to.  Either way, our role as the leader is to find out why, provide the necessary supports, and encourage them to keep an open mind.

If we only provide the structure – the hard – then the vision could drive a wedge between us and our staff. We will be asking them to take professional risks without allowing for the messiness of those risks. If we only provide the soul – the soft – then everyone feels comfortable and supported along a journey to nowhere.  If we provide both, we create the foundation for confidence through a positive emotional climate that inspires people to push through their own perceived ceilings of excellence.

It’s all about CONFIDENCE!

It’s all about confidence…everything else is just details.  The book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End by Rosabeth Moss Kanter is, without question, one of the most influential books on my career as an educator.  Kanter is not an education writer per se – she is a professor at the Harvard Business School – however, her work helped me realize that confidence is the key that unlocks the door to maximizing student success.

In Confidence, Kanter explores the issues of winning streaks and losing streaks.  She highlights various organizations, sports teams, and individuals who consistently win and those who consistently lose.  Why is it that some companies, regardless of economic instability over long periods of time, continue to succeed?  What are the conditions within a professional sports organization that allow teams to remain at the top?  What is the mindset of individuals that brings them to place where they expect to succeed?  Why can’t some companies, teams, or individuals halt their losing streaks?

In Confidence, Kanter writes:

The expectation about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in. Those who are convinced they can be successful…who have ‘self-efficacy’…are likely to try harder and to persist longer when they face obstacles.

Think about that for a moment.  If our students are convinced they can be successful – if they have the self-efficacy – they are likely to try harder and persist longer when they face obstacles. Confident students believe they can eventually learn anything.  They will try harder and persist longer because they have what Kanter calls a grounded optimism; their confidence is based upon a track record of success and not simply an inflated level of false hope.

As a parent, I vividly remember the time when my children learned to ski.  At the time, my son was 5 and my daughter was 8…and they were both terrified.  They didn’t think they could do it, thought they might get hurt, and thought the “learning hill” was too steep.  Now the learning hill was not really even the real learning hill – it was a path with a very gentle slope – but they were convinced it was a double black diamond!!  Just prior to meeting their instructor, I huddled my kids together and I reminded them of their past successes. I said to my daughter, you used to be afraid to ride your bike without training wheels; I turned to my son, you used to be afraid to put your head underwater. As I continued to remind them of all of the other fears they had overcome I could see their confidence growing.  We turned and looked up the mountain to the hundreds of skiers enjoying the day and I said, Look at all of those people who have learned how to ski…I bet they were once afraid too, but look at them now…why would you be any different from them?  If they can do it, so can you!  The connection to the classroom wasn’t immediate, but that day convinced me that grounded optimism solidifies a child’s (student’s) confidence to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

The opposite of confidence, of course, is anxiety.  As most of us know, anxiety interferes with memory, attention, and concentration.  Anxious students prefer to have information fed to them as they have a general sense of incompetence.  In turn, this decreases the incentive to learn and begins a downward spiral: Passive students don’t internalize the learning which leads to a poor performance. The poor performance reinforces the feeling of incompetence, which further decreases the incentive to learn, which leads to a greater desire to have the material fed to them, and so on. Anxiety is counter-productive to learning and we need to find ways to minimize its impact.

But where does confidence come from?  How can kids get on “winning streaks” that allow their confidence as learners to grow?  This is where we come in.  Kanter suggests that…

…at the beginning of every winning streak there is a leader who creates the foundation for confidence that permits unexpected people to achieve high levels of performance.

As the leader in the classroom, the teacher creates the conditions for success and the foundation for confidence which allows unexpected students to achieve high levels of performance. Leaders within our system do the same for the adults they lead.  When we have the confidence mindset, we see everything through a different lens.  We begin to ask ourselves some tough questions about the way we’ve always done it.  If something we’ve always done raises anxiety we need to consider whether it is producing the desired results or whether it is standing in the way of success.  All of the structures, routines, and practices create the learning condition within the classroom; the question is whether the condition created will build the students confidence to a level where they expect to succeed.  It’s not that they won’t have to work at; they just know that success will be the end result.

Confidence transcends any skill and any century. Teaching is, and always will be, about building confidence…confidence is about expecting a positive result…expecting a positive result drives the desire to learn.  Everything else is just details.


Welcome to my blog!  As an educator, I am looking forward to sharing my perspective on education as well as hearing yours. 

The intent of this blog is to focus on aspects of teaching, learning, and leadership that will maximize the opportunities for success for all of our students. 

My particular areas of expertise are Assessment for Learning, Sound Grading & Reporting Practices, and Behavioural Support. As well, I will share my thoughts on various other relevant topics in education. such as 21st century learning, differentiated instruction, leadership, etc.

I’m looking forward to some great discussions!