I have come to observe and admire a rare and powerful quality found in highly successful leaders - the ability to have both confidence and humility. Often, I find that leaders who are confident are not humble and those with humility are not confident, even to the point of constantly seeking reassurances to validate their leadership.

The first step in knowing how to have confidence and humility starts with reframing the mindset of both. Frequently, humility is interpreted as a weakness or inadequacy. But rather, humility is freedom from arrogance and pride.

This absence of ego ushers in an openness to wonder and discover. It opens the door to constant inquiry and learning. And healthy confidence can flow from genuine competence and self-assurance. It can spring from having a passionate point of view about discovering a better way and being a tireless pioneer in finding that better way.

However, the leadership-zapping trait of arrogance shows up when confidence stems from a position of being certain or being the expert/guru. The arrogant expert typically conveys sentiments such as, "I know more than you," "I have more than you," and even "I am more than you."

What happens when the arrogance of confidence and the weakness of humility are removed? This can be a magical act of leadership that creates influence, impact, and followership.

The path to being humble starts with the recognition and realization that comes from compassion, empathy, vulnerability, and service - not "guru-ism."

We may want to master content, a topic, or an issue so well that people will listen to us and see what we know as valuable. However, intellect alone is not the most powerful force in positively leading others.

Successful Leadership Traits that May Surprise

The litmus test is a simple and single reflection. Ask anyone to think about the people who have had the most profound impact on their life. What traits are mentioned? Their position? Their authority? Their superb intellect or economic prowess? What was it about them that made such a difference?

The answers are often very similar. They include statements like:

  • They were always listening to my needs and being mutually vested in my success or failures.
  • They understood my perspective even before I told them how I felt.
  • They believed in me when I didn't yet think that I was up for the challenge.
  • Every interaction seemed to make me smarter, more capable, and more confident.
  • Their approach was to draw out the confidence in me instead of using their own "know how" to tell me what I should believe, think, and feel.
  • Even when they had a strong opinion backed by facts and experience, they strived to better understand my perspective, and see the issue through my eyes.
  • They intuitively knew that leading others wasn't about emphasizing what they knew. Instead, they set the stage for orchestrating discovery in what I already intuitively knew, but wasn't yet clear enough to act on it.

Balancing Confidence and Humility

Removing arrogance from confidence requires discovering the perspective of the people we lead, seeing the world through the eyes of the people we serve, and understanding it is their confidence we want to build and strengthen - not ours.

The path to being confident starts with getting in touch with "why" you do what you do. Stop worrying about what people think you do, and get clear on the purpose that invigorates all that you do. Lack of confidence is rooted in a focus on "me" rather than "we."

True confidence does not come from finding your expertise. Rather, confidence comes from losing yourself in a cause that you want to fight for, going after a problem that has defied a solution, joining a team that wants to build something that is meaningful, and developing a strong point of view on what you want to create.

Becoming an insatiable student in the continuing refinement of that point of view can build immense confidence, the kind that is contagious and often found in lifelong learners.

For leaders, confidence with humility creates authentic followership - people will want to get on board with you and your journey. They want to know you are human just like them - you have emotions, needs, and concerns, just like they do. By showing humility through your leadership, your people will feel more connected to you, like you get them, and have compassion for who they are.

At the same time, they need a leader who can build them up and help them believe they can do what they put their mind to. The ability to have both confidence and humility is a hidden gem in the book of leadership skills, and one that more leaders need to understand and embrace when leading their people.