I’ve been an independent consultant for eight years now. One of the deepest insights I’ve gained, from my own experience and that of helping others is the unerring value of self-esteem.
Self-esteem is the profound belief, faith even, that we are worthwhile individuals and that we have something of value to contribute to others and to the wider world. Unfortunately, many people confuse the belief in one’s unconditional worth and value with the belief that one should be beyond criticism or sheltered from opposition, difficulty, or even enmity.
An acquaintance of mine has been struggling for years with the idea of writing a book. He has—falsely in my estimation—focused on researching the topic to death and developing the ideas of others. If he had just written the book based on what he knows about the topic he would probably have published it by now and started drawing the benefits of having done so. He thinks he has a writing problem and frames his situation in that way. I’ve suggested to him that what he really has is a self-esteem issue. He thinks that he needs to rely on the ideas of others in order to be taken seriously as an author and expert on his topic of choice.
To quote Isaac Newton, we all “stand on the shoulders of giants.” That’s okay, and we should always acknowledge the sources of our ideas and contributions of others. But when that becomes an excuse to put off accomplishing what we truly want, it’s not simply a technical problem. It’s a self-esteem problem.
I’ve often been surprised in working with executives and companies that a lot of their problems stem from low self-esteem, or at least a lack of self-confidence and self-recognition of their unique value. I was doing a project with a professional service company. We were discussing ways of increasing the value—and fees—they could be charging their clients. When I broached the topic of moving from simply providing ready-made information and executing client-defined mandates, to knowledge- and wisdom-based interventions, the members of the group were visibly ill at ease.
When I inquired as to the nature of their discomfort, they told me straight out they didn’t think they could do it, and that besides their clients would never pay for that. They said they could never venture outside the beaten path of how things are done in their industry. It reminded me of the Simpsons episode when Marge washes Homer’s white shirts with the reds, and they come out pink. Marge tells Homer she thinks he looks good in pink, and that he looks different. But he tells her that he can’t risk being different because he’s not popular enough.
As my mentor, Alan Weiss, always says, “You can’t ask others to believe in your value unless you first believe it yourself.” Value is largely a psychological phenomenon. Can we honestly say a $100 thousand Mercedes is worth three times as much as a $30 thousand dollar Toyota (or whatever)? Not objectively at least. The value is in the perception and the branding. Before someone accuses me of not recognizing the workmanship and styling and performance of a Mercedes, I’ll say right away that these are objective qualities. However, there is also a unique, subjective qualitative difference. Technical know-how and proficiency are definitely a source of the Mercedes brand, but so is the self-esteem of the company, its management, and its employees. Moreover, customers acquire Mercedes’s cars because of that perception.
The exercise of sound leadership implies risk-taking and decision-making. This also entails a need for strong self-esteem. If you’re in front and leading, seeking to influence others and giving your view of things, then you will necessarily be criticized and occasionally opposed. You can’t lead if you don’t have the self-esteem to weather its inevitable ups and downs. By extension, leadership is founded on respect. We think of respect for the leader, but that also includes respect of others in general. To lead people you have to respect them enough to give them information, to explain the situation, to let them use their creativity and initiative, and to develop them so they can shine and eventually step into your shoes.
As you can see, self-esteem is not just some ethereal quality suitable only for preschoolers. If we want to take risks in life—And can we really avoid them?—then we require self-esteem. We must believe in our powers and abilities, and be willing to take a chance on them. We must have faith that others want and value our products and services and contributions. Otherwise, we get lost in the pack with no perception of difference and competitive advantage. We also fail to make our best contribution.
Richard Martin is The Master Strategist and Leadership Catalyst. Richard brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.
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