“Leaders say they owe it to the young people to give them hope. I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to act.” These searing words were spoken by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg as she urged this year’s Davos attendees to take action on climate change. No, this is not a blog about global warming. It’s about what happened to the 16-year-old within each of us.
The seeds of Greta’s concern about climate change began to germinate when her teachers showed films about the environment in school. At first she fell into a deep depression, but then she started to take action. In 2018, Greta won a local Swedish newspaper writing contest for an essay on why we should act now on climate change. Soon after, she began striking by sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament building every Friday, a protest that was quickly covered by the media.
I recently read an article about Greta titled, “All my life I’ve been the invisible girl,” and I began to ponder why so many of us lose that 16-year-old within us. The one who sees things as they are and tells it like it is. The one who’s confident. Why do we allow our culture to muffle our authentic selves? It seems irrational, doesn’t it? Here we are as adults, striving for creative solutions in our personal lives, organizations, and communities yet stifling the very part of ourselves most likely to achieve the innovative thinking required. By ignoring that youthful spirit within, we’re undermining the potential of individuals and organizations, limiting what’s possible for all stakeholders. It’s a lose-lose-lose proposition.
I must confess, I don’t understand what it’s like not to have confidence. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my struggles. I dread getting stuck in useless conversations. I get nervous before giving speeches. But experiencing a little anxiety or discomfort, it seems, is quite different from what it feels like to lack confidence. I may have a few butterflies in my stomach, but I always feel grounded by the belief that I’m competent, that I have what it takes to accomplish my goals.
Much has been written about confidence versus competence and which should be the priority when hiring employees or selecting leaders. The best candidates seem to have both, and that’s because the two qualities are interdependent. Greta immersed herself in the issue — becoming competent — and then had the confidence to let her voice be heard, standing up alone for what she fervently believed in.
In my new white paper “Running Circles Around the Ol’ Boys Clubs,” I write of the business benefits of having women in leadership and highlight the accomplishments and challenges faced by the #remarkablewomen I interviewed for my book. Julie Brush shared that her confidence was built early through sports — tennis in particular. “You develop a work ethic and deal with adversity, failure and meritocracy,” says Julie. In sports, she explains, there's nowhere to hide. You win or you lose. And in a sport like tennis, there's no one to blame but yourself.
Julie is a widely successful attorney and a co-founder of Solutus, a search firm focused on legal recruiting and consulting. Working in the male-dominated legal industry, Julie has found herself in many meetings over the years where her gender and voice were not welcomed. But like Greta, she was confident in her knowledge, and that emboldened her to get her voice heard. When I asked what advice she offers young women, she said she tells them to acquire and hone self-confidence by volunteering and playing sports. “These little steps build up your self-esteem and are stepping stones to something bigger.”
In his brief but inspiring Ted Talk, Google engineer Matt Cutts explains that doing something repeatedly for just 30 days can have a transformative effect on the mind. Like a muscle that strengthens with repeated workouts, self-confidence grows when we do some challenging but fulfilling task over and over. So, the next time you find yourself cowering in a meeting room or reluctant to speak, ask yourself any of these three questions:
- What’s the point of being here if I don’t amplify my voice?
- Is the issue confidence, competence or something else?
- What would Greta do?
Greta Thunberg, who writes her own speeches and is direct and authoritative in her delivery, has given a Ted Talk and addressed global leaders at the UN climate talk in Poland and elsewhere. She is also now entering her 27th week of striking. If this 16-year-old can find it in herself to speak for change, can’t we all?