The Need to Be Confident vs. Being Quietly Powerful

Interview with Megumi Miki for the Women in STEM, Reimagined masterclass.

This week’s blog is all about confidence, how to build it and what it looks like. To discuss this important topic, I invited author, speaker, and consultant in leadership, culture, and inclusion, Megumi Miki. Megumi’s professional purpose is to challenge leadership’s status quo to unlock potential in teams and leaders. Her book Quietly Powerful: How your quiet nature is your hidden leadership strength received the Australian Career Book Award for 2020 by RSA Oceania and Best Leadership Book of 2020 by the Australian Business Book Awards. As a quieter professional herself and as a leadership and culture consultant, she feels it is time to update our beliefs about what effective leadership looks like.

Do we need to be confident to be a leader?

In my work as a career coach, I see a lot of people who say, “I’m just not confident,” and use this as a reason for why they cannot progress into leadership roles. However, do you need to be confident to be a leader? 

“Confidence is an outcome, not a prerequisite,” explains Megumi. “The more you do things, the more confident you become. What you need is the courage to take a few risks to just have a go.” She elaborates that confidence comes from pushing just a little bit outside your comfort zone, but not your terror zone. Not trying because you’re not confident will actually lower your confidence. 

“Society has typically told us that someone who looks confident is leader-like,” continues Megumi. “But that’s unhelpful and untrue because sometimes the people who look confident don’t actually have inner or real confidence.” She instead helps people find that inner confidence, instead of focusing on looking confident. Having inner confidence is much more helpful. 

Megumi is an expert on quietly powerful leaders for this reason. The quietly powerful leaders are confident in the true sense of the word. They don’t have to show off, and their power seems to come from being comfortable with being uncomfortable. “That self-worth, self-esteem; that’s what is so powerful,” says Megumi. “I have come across people who seemed confident. But when I gave them some feedback, they became quite defensive.” If they were truly confident, they would be more receptive and open to improving. That openness and comfort with the uncomfortable in a leader benefit all because the leader is open to improving. 

What is a quietly powerful leader?

“When I think about quietly powerful leaders, they’re the people that don’t say a lot, but when they do speak up, everyone listens,” explains Megumi. “They don’t say a lot, but what they say has a lot of impact.” She interviewed 29 quietly powerful leaders for her book research and has now done about 40 interviews with this type of leader. Their distinguishing traits: Authenticity, comfort with not being comfortable, humility to admit they don’t know everything, presence, and ability to connect with people. 

Interestingly, these leaders typically develop deep relationships with people that last a long time, rather than short-term transactional relationships. Some have even been or had mentors for decades. They create space for others rather than taking all the space themselves. Many have said they were reluctant to be a leader until someone tapped them on the shoulder. Control, power, and status didn’t mean as much as the purpose and contribution the leadership role would provide. They took the leadership role because they wanted to contribute to the work. 

What drew you to the principle of being quietly powerful?

“Personally, I’m a quieter person,” starts Megumi. “I started my career as a management consultant. I was 20-something and didn’t know anything, and I was supposed to look confident walking into meetings with leadership. I thought, hopefully not everyone had to do that. At one point, I had an insight of how much I was faking it, and I exhausted myself and burnt out.” She was underutilizing the quieter qualities that made her a good leader in her own way.  

As for why she is interested in quietly powerful leaders professionally, working in leadership and organizational culture, she got frustrated with work cultures that valued the more extroverted style of leadership. “I’ve seen an individual be “assessed” in an afternoon and told how she didn’t have leadership potential,” Megumi recounts. Even though for three years, this individual had been quietly leading a team of about 150 people on a big project, she just never had the flashy style that the organization decided was necessary for leadership. 

“We need more of these leaders who are here for the work and not for the status,” states Megumi. “Quietly powerful leaders, their ego is in check; They care more about the work than themselves.” If we are to create change and a better world, we need more leaders who focus on the work over their egos.

Missed Women in STEM, Reimagined? 

Megumi Miki. Megumi is an author, speaker and consultant in leadership, culture and diversity and inclusion, with a background in strategy, economics and finance. With a client list including National Australia Bank, Roche, Ernst & Young, State and Federal government departments and smaller organisations, Megumi challenges the status quo in leadership to unlock the hidden talent and collective potential.

She is the author of Start inspiring, stop driving: Unlock your team’s potential to outperform and grow and Quietly Powerful: How your quiet nature is your hidden leadership strength, which received the Australian Career Book Award for 2020 from RSA Oceania and Best Leadership Book of 2020 from the Australian Business Book Awards.

Dr. Nicole Tschierske is a positive psychology coach who helps women in STEM get noticed in their company so they attract their next opportunity with total ease.

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