Do Leaders Build Confidence or Does Confidence Build Leaders?

Within the past two weeks, we’ve seen two sports figures in the New York area anointed as leaders – the Giants’ Eli Manning and the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin.  Why are these two quiet athletes leaders?

One could point to the fact that both play positions in their respective sports that are natural leadership roles – quarterback and point guard.  They call the plays, they read the defense and determine how to execute the play, and they generally have the ball first and are responsible for getting it into the hands of other team members.  But there’s clearly more to it because there are few professional quarterbacks and point guards who have changed the fortunes of their teams, seemingly willing them to success against superior talent.  What do Manning and Lin share?

  • They build up their team, not themselves.

You rarely, if ever, hear them talk about themselves unless asked; even then, they quickly deflect the conversation to their team and teammates.  They call out others’ contributions and the essential nature of team play to winning.  It’s more than humility; it’s clear that both are very confident in their own abilities.  Rather, Manning and Lin both emphasize the importance of their teammates. This builds teammates’ confidence in their own skills and roles and more crucially, their ability to contribute, each in his way and by supporting each other.

  • They have confidence in their own abilities and are not hesitant to demonstrate them.

Eli and Jeremy both carry themselves with quiet confidence.  Each knows what he’s capable of and has faith in his own competence and skill.  When Manning was asked in the pre-season if he was an elite quarterback, the equal of Tom Brady or his older brother Peyton, he responded affirmatively without hesitation.  It wasn’t a claim that he proffered and there was no arrogance or cockiness in his reply, just quiet certainty.  He used the season to back up his response.

  • They are unselfish in the game.

Lin acts much the same way as Eli.  On court, he’s calm and certain in his role.  He’s not looking to score first (although he certainly can do that with skill, too).  Instead, he’s distributing the ball unselfishly to his teammates and giving them the opportunity to score.  His skill and confidence builds their confidence and inspires them to perform to the best of their abilities.   Last night’s game against the Timberwolves was a great example – while Lin scored 20, he was not shooting well in the second half.  It was not the superstars Stoudemire and Anthony (who are both unavailable for now) who filled the void but Lin’s less heralded teammates Steve Novak, Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert who picked up their games and helped Lin lead the Knicks to their fifth consecutive victory.

For both men, the confidence they’ve demonstrated in their own skills and their team has resulted in their teammates having confidence in themselves.  And equally important, it has imbued supreme confidence in Manning and Lin, respectively, by their teammates.  Such confidence has also increased everyone’s commitment to performing as well as possible, to reliance on each other, and to winning.    Leaders build confidence in their teams, and the confidence of their teammates in them is a key to what makes them leaders.

It’s no different in business.  Michael Useem, Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, as well as Professor of Management at The Wharton School, in his book The Leader’s Checklist identifies these skills as:

  • Honor the Room: Express confidence in and support for those who work for you;
  • Place Common Interest First: Common purpose comes first, parochial concerns last;
  • Take Charge: Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility…particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference; and Act Decisively: Make good and timely decisions and ensure that they are executed.

A leader in corporate America who embodies these principles is Kent J. Thiry, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of DaVita. Thiry joined DaVita when it was about to fail.  He “honored the room,” listening to his employees and building the company’s core values around them.  He and his executive team worked (incognito) in the most basic roles in the company as staff in one of the company’s dialysis treatment centers in order to learn what worked and what didn’t.  Under his leadership, DaVita adopted “We Said, We Did” as its corporate mantra, holding himself, his team and all DaVita employees responsible for doing what they committed to and placing common interest first.  And he certainly took charge and acted decisively while enabling his co-workers to do likewise.  From the brink of bankruptcy, Thiry led DaVita to where it is today the largest operator of dialysis treatment centers in the U.S. with more than 36,000 employees, $6.5 billion of revenue, a pre-tax profit of 12%, a 5-year growth rate of more than 16% per year, a return on equity of almost 20% and a P/E multiple exceeding 21.

There are few better examples of the power of quiet, confident leadership.  Whether a company is in distress or facing huge opportunity, these qualities are essential in its leadership to conquer the challenges in its path.

About Ken Drossman

Ken Drossman is a Managing Director at Oak & Apple Partners, LLC. Ken has spent more than 35 years demonstrating practical financial acumen by leading, advising and guiding privately-owned, small and middle-market companies through financial and operating challenges. He has in-depth experience in all phases of financial, strategic and operating management from hands on cash flow budgeting through acquisition financing, from divestiture of business units to reorganizing and leading newly formed companies. Prior to co-founding Oak & Apple Partners, Ken has been the principal at Lakeview Business Consulting, LLC, which assists entrepreneurial business owners and their companies in achieving their business vision. Ken earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before founding Lakeview Business Consulting in 2006, he served for 18 years as CEO, COO and/or CFO at several privately-owned companies, in industries including financial services for hospitals; digital document storage and outsourced back-office services for professional service firms; design and distribution of personal business accessories through big-box retailers; capital goods manufacturing for national and regional retail chains; and information services for beverage alcohol manufacturing and marketing companies. Previously, Ken was a Partner at Grant Thornton, LLP, where he provided management consulting services to such companies as AT&T, Baxter Laboratories and GTE-Sylvania, as well as many middle-market companies.
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