Why Courage Matters More Than Confidence

It’s common to conflate confidence with courage. But here’s the difference in a nutshell. Confidence is believing you can do something. Courage is acting in the face of fear and doubt.

We develop confidence from experience, through trial and error. But first we need the courage to try. If we wait until we feel confident to try new things, we may never do them, leaving us forever stuck (and often feeling shame and isolation).

So it follows that courage is the essential prerequisite to building confidence. And the distinction of courage is that it is not an absence of fear but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.

I see courage as essential to success in law firms, because the majority of the behaviors that lead to recognition and promotion in law firms require courage.

As associates, you can thrive simply by working hard and doing good work. As your career progresses, however, the roles of senior associate, counsel and partner become progressively more complex.

These higher-level positions not only require more willingness to take risks, but also to withstand increased vulnerability and visibility. Examples of these behaviors include stating complex opinions with authority. Walking into a room as if you own it. Accepting a speaking engagement that is out of your comfort zone (inside or outside your firm). Making business development calls. And networking at industry conferences.

These are all things we know we should do to succeed.  So what holds us back? Most often it is fear – plain and simple. This is why we need courage to progress. Fear holds us back. Courage moves us forward.

All Humans– Both Women and Men – Are Largely Driven by Fear

The fact is that ALL humans – both women and men – are largely driven by fear. It’s part of our biological hardwiring to survive.

Things may “seem” harder for women, because men can be more adept at hiding their fear. Many men have been socialized from a young age to be “strong” and not show vulnerability. Many women have not had the same socialization.

So when women enter the masculine culture of a law firm, the unspoken norm is that fear is unacceptable. The result is that most women suffer in silence, because we believe we are the only ones feeling afraid. We then spend a lot of time and energy trying to hide the fact that we feel fear. When we conceal our fears, we feel shame and isolation – making it harder than ever to act with courage.

The issue is made worse by the pervasive “no mistakes” culture in many firms. The problem is that lawyers do make mistakes – all the time. This is nature of being human.

Some of the most successful lawyers I have coached have told me that they made the most progress in their career through their mistakes. But, people rarely talk about their failures or how they moved past mistakes.  And we are left to feel that we are the only ones.

Get To Know Your Fears

The first step to developing courage is to really get to know your fears. The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, says, “Learn to smile at fear.” It’s amazing how empowering it can be just to identify and name your fears and then realize you are not alone in feeling afraid. Here is a list of common fears I hear from lawyers all the time.

Five Common Fears

Am I good enough?

  • I feel like an imposter – I am afraid someone will find out that I don’t know what I’m doing…
  • I can’t stand networking, so I don’t think I will ever be able to bring in business.
  • Do I belong here? I am often the only woman in the room…
  • Can I be authentic? Is there a “type” of person who will succeed here? I am afraid I am not that. Everyone seems to have it more together than me. I feel like I am barely hanging on with all my responsibilities inside and outside of work.

Am I smart enough?

  • Despite my Ivy League degrees and evidence of success, I still worry I am not smart enough…

Do I know enough?

  • I know I should speak up with more authority, but I don’t know everything there is to know about the issue. I am afraid I will look stupid…
  • The louder and more authoritative men and women know more than I do…
  • The louder and more authoritative men and women have more confidence than I do…

Will people like me?

  • If I step out and be more assertive or more authoritative, will people like me? I’m afraid I will be labeled xyz…
  • I’m afraid of letting people down…

Is this even right for me?

  • I don’t see anyone I admire doing it well. I am afraid I am wasting my life working all the time, and I have little chance for promotion…
  • I have a values conflict. I care a lot about work and a lot about my family…

My friend and colleague, Jennifer Hart, describes it this way, “Fear is like gas – when tightly enclosed, it builds dangerous pressure. But once exposed to the open air, it dissipates and loses its power – making that next courageous step feel more attainable.”

This week: Name your fears! Begin by listing questions or statements (limiting beliefs). This is important because by naming the unknown, we retake some of its power over us.

Then, find someone you trust (e.g., a member of your WLF cohort) with whom you can discuss your fears. Remember that not only are you not alone, but you are in the company of the majority of people – both women AND men – who have fears and can choose to confront them with courage.

Next Up: 5 Practices to Develop Courage

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