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By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

(Hudson Street Press, 258 pages, $27.50)

Confidence is prized in leadership, as long as it doesn't tip into arrogance. But Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor at University College London, says our thirst for confidence is misguided. What we need for success is competence. And although confident people seem to exude competence, the correlation between confidence and competence is actually quite weak. What we should seek are leaders and colleagues who lack confidence, because that will spur them on to competence.

It's an unusual perspective, at odds with today's narcissistic era. In his book Confidence, he notes that in the 1950s only 12 per cent of U.S. university students described themselves as "an important person" but by the 1980s that had skyrocketed to 80 per cent. A tally of students who could be narcissistic rose from 15 per cent in 1982 to 25 per cent in 2006. Levels of self-esteem, a measure of confidence, have been rising exponentially over the decades. In 2006, 80 per cent of U.S. students reported self-esteem levels higher than the average for 1988.

But any confidence that breeds is not necessarily linked to competence. In studies, he found the average correlation was quite low. Most confident people, he suggests, are deluded about their abilities. "[T]he only people who are not positively biased in their self views are those with low confidence. So, if you hardly ever feel that you are better than others, you are actually less delusional than most people," he writes.

Most intriguingly, he explains that studies show if your goal is to be competent, the best way to achieve that is through low, rather than high, confidence. High confidence inhibits self-improvement, since it undermines our knowledge about ourselves. Why improve if we're already (in our own minds) terrific?

"More often than not, lower confidence is a symptom of lower competence, telling us that we must improve. You should therefore treasure and embrace your low confidence, as a key ingredient of self-improvement," he writes.

So you can benefit from your insecurities. Low confidence is helpful, because it aids you in adapting to your environment. When low confidence triggers anxiety, that reminds you to pay attention to the situation, and work to increase your competence. Low confidence protects you. It spurs you on.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic often speaks before groups, and recounts how he once agreed to give a lecture on shoe psychology (how shoe preferences reflect personalities), given that he has studied the psychology of advertising. But as the speech approached, he became nervous because he had never delved into shoe psychology and his audience for the one-hour presentation would be a high-powered collection of fashion designers and marketing executives.

Fearing failure, he spent many hours in the library, reading everything he could on the topic. "The presentation was fine in the end, but if it weren't for my low confidence and anxiety, it would have been disastrous and embarrassing. This was just one of many times I have been grateful to my low confidence for pushing me to prepare for my lectures," he writes.

If you want to avoid losing a fight, you shouldn't take on someone stronger. And that smart strategy is more likely if you have low confidence, he says: You will avoid situations bound to lead to defeat. High confidence, on the other hand, can lead you to underestimate your rival and be beaten.

He divides achievement into preparation and performance. When you perform, confidence can be advantageous, enhancing the perception of competence by others and distracting you from any inner insecurities. Conversely, inner doubts will distract you if you are performing in low-confidence mode, leading you to lose focus and indicate to others that you lack competence.

But he believes performance is only a small part of the achievement equation, amounting to about 10 per cent of the time and effort you need to accomplish anything. Preparation accounts for the other 90 per cent, and the less confident you are about your performance, the more you will prepare.

Abundant research, he says, indicates that lower confidence is an important driver of change and causes future gains in competence. "The paradoxical nature of confidence is that higher confidence may increase people's aspirations while decreasing their dedication," he writes.

"On the other hand, if your confidence is low, you may have less ambitious goals, but you will also be more likely to perceive them as challenging, which will incentivize you to prepare more and allocate more time and energy to attaining them."

This is a provocative work, an excursion into the role of confidence at work, in relationships, and the impact on leading a healthy life. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic repeatedly challenges our beliefs, which makes for a stimulating read.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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