How to Project Confidence Even When You’re Feeling Unsure
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The Insightful Leader Logo The Insightful Leader Sent to subscribers on May 18, 2022
How to Project Confidence Even When You’re Feeling Unsure

When you’re thrown into a new, challenging situation at work, how confident do you feel in your ability to navigate it? Do you march in, head held high, thinking, “I got this!”? Or do you worry that you’re out of your depth? If you’re consistently in this second camp, despite positive feedback from your colleagues, perhaps you experience imposter syndrome.

I checked in with Brooke Vuckovic, a clinical professor of management and organizations, about how to combat imposter syndrome. First, she says, stop feeling bad about feeling unsure.

We’ll hear more from her below. And on a different note, we’ve also got insights from former Treasury secretary Larry Summers, who recently visited Kellogg.

How to Maintain a Strong Presence When You’re Feeling Unsure of Yourself

I reached out to Vuckovic on this topic because in addition to teaching at Kellogg, she is an executive coach and an expert on executive presence. How, I wondered, can we maintain a strong presence that demonstrates confidence and calm when we’re feeling anything but? Here’s what she had to say:

Vuckovic: First of all, if you’re growing in your career, it’s completely normal to feel unsure. That’s a sign of growth. So let’s normalize that lack of certainty. Why do we pathologize this?

Second, in thinking about how to cultivate a strong presence when you’re feeling unsure, prepare with what IS certain. For example, if you’re presenting to a new level of higher ups in a meeting, get really familiar with the setting: Who will you be dealing with? (Do your research.) What does the room set up look like? (Show up early.) What is the group hoping for from you? (Ask, if it’s not clear!)

Then prepare internally to show up in a way that supports the leadership requirement of that moment. For example, you may feel scared as hell and what your group needs from you is a sense of stability, a sense of optimism, and a sense of hope. And you have to find a way to get there. Authenticity is important, but so too is adaptability to the wide demands of leadership.

How might you be more adaptive and yet remain authentic? Create a “grounding statement” that keeps you focused. Here’s how to do that in three steps:

First, clarify the context and what the team needs from you in that moment.

Second, ask yourself: given that aim, what most supports that happening? Do you need to be firm but kind? Flexible and empowering? Clear and decisive?

Finally, to give yourself the firmest of footings, find your why for that moment: why is it important that I show up that way?

Then you put those three elements together. For example, “I am open and empowering so my team can determine their own next steps on this client issue.” Or, “I am clear and decisive so my team understands their roles and responsibilities here.”

Usually once you determine what, specifically, is required in a given leadership moment, you’re able to get there.

Larry Summers Talks Inflation

Larry Summers, treasury secretary for President Clinton and director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, spoke at Kellogg recently. After his speech, he did a Q&A with finance professor Jan Eberly, a former chief economist at the Treasury. The two discussed inflation (of course), monetary policy, and infrastructure investment.

Here’s a bit of their conversation:

Eberly: Let’s talk monetary policy. The Fed has a new operating policy that they put in place over the last couple of years. Do you think that’s the right operating policy? Instead of average inflation targeting, do they need to have a different approach for a different world?

Summers: To be blunt, I think that policy was almost completely ill-conceived. Nobody really cares at any moment what inflation was five years ago. So saying that inflation’s going to average out over a long period of time is inviting fairly wide swings to the rate of inflation.

I think the statement they made in association with that policy, that they would not respond to the threat of inflation under any circumstances but would wait only until they saw inflation, was a change from longstanding practice. And given that monetary policy operates with a substantial lag, it was a mistake. And I think the statement that even if they saw inflation, that they wouldn’t tighten monetary policy unless they judged the economy to be at full employment was a confusion as well, because why would you have rising inflation if in some sense you didn’t have an overheating economy relative to its potential?

I think those statements were a response to the economic environment that occurred before the pandemic.

You can read the full Q&A here.


“I don’t want to call them ‘unicorns,’ but the idea is that these people, with their enhanced competence, confidence, and credibility, may exert an outsized influence in driving strategic change.”

—Professor Edward Zajac inInsight, discussing his research on what makes corporate board members more influential.