Today’s changing, disruptive business environment can damage leaders’ confidence. 

That’s one of the findings of the “How Leaders Grow Today” research project, which surveyed 957 leaders and then conducted interviews with a number of them.

The project was a combined effort of Matt Norman, president of Dale Carnegie Training in the North Central United States region, Paul Batz, president of leadership coaching firm What Really Works, Paul Dominski, senior vice president of U.S. human resources at Best Buy Co. Inc., and Brandon Sullivan, director of organizational effectiveness at the University of Minnesota. Norman, a Des Moines native, was in West Des Moines last month to lead a workshop using the report results.

Confidence is one of four leadership growth “accelerants” identified in the report, which focused on how leaders are personally affected by dynamics in today’s business world, such as technological advances, economic uncertainty and changing workplace environments. 

“What so many people told us when we interviewed them was ‘I was confident. That’s what got me to this level,’” Norman said. “‘And then my confidence was shattered.’” 

Individual confidence, defined as “trusting your ability to find the attitude and response to meet tomorrow’s uncertainty,” is aided by CEO-level leadership that allows leaders within the organization to focus on its growth, rather than worry about its survival.

Norman uses the analogy of moving from a zoo (a stable business environment) to a jungle, which is more like today’s business environment. In a zoo, your day is pretty structured; you know where your next meal will come from. In a jungle, “roles are very ambiguous and changing,” he said.

The research project is an attempt to give companies ideas about how to better develop leaders. Three other accelerants for leadership growth complement each other. They are:

A helpful culture: This exists when people feel they can be transparent and vulnerable, and where healthy conflict is encouraged.

Active mentoring: This happens when mentors purposefully listen rather than jump to giving advice.

Resource networks: Leaders having networks of people with varied skills, knowledge and expertise, which  can come from within a company or by getting involved in outside organizations. 

The Business Record sat down with Matt Norman to discuss Dale Carnegie research on leadership 

How is being a leader different today than it was 15 years ago?

It used to be, for many leaders, you could be very successful in a career by being a very good, functional manager of people. In other words, if I’m really good at accounting, I can either work at a public accounting firm or I can be in a department at a company. As long as I can lead people who do accounting ... I can probably spend a whole career doing that.

Today, because of the rapid disruptions, organizations are telling us that they need their leaders to think more broadly across the organization. They need to think at the level of the organization. Which forces leaders out of their comfort zone at the functional and technical expertise, and into the unknown area of the strategy, culture and vision. So you can’t just be in this comfort zone of leading the finance department. We need you to be at the table elevating the conversation about where we are going, what’s the culture 
of our organization, and how are we going to get there.

What would leaders be surprised to find out from this research?

The first surprise was that confidence was one of the four primary accelerants. It really emphasized the point that leaders are experiencing a lot of stress and uncertainty about themselves. And by the way, it’s not bravado, like “I can get it all done.” But it’s this genuine, “I know that I can find the attitude and response to all the uncertainties that come up.”

The other surprise was how much emphasis there was around kind of fostering who we are as human beings, in a really authentic way. We all know culture is important, but this idea that helpful culture is about being vulnerable, complex, straightforward. There’s an authenticity to that that I think was a little bit surprising. Likewise with mentoring. We all know mentoring is important, but it’s not just about “I’m going to give you advice on something.” It’s “I’m going to journey with you as a human being.”

What can a leader take from this research for their organization today?

I think the words “intentionality” and “systematically” come to mind. It’s not enough to just say these four things are important. There have to be systems, policies, processes or structures in place that foster them.