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The Leadership Paradox: Humility and Confidence

Craig Van SlykeLeaders face an interesting, sometimes confusing, paradox. People want leaders who are humble, but also want leaders who project confidence. Projecting humility can suggest a lack of self-confidence, but projecting self-confidence can suggest arrogance. What’s a leader to do?

Let’s untangle this apparent paradox by finding common ground between humility and self-confidence. Before doing so, however, it’s important to distinguish between legitimate self-confidence and defensive self-confidence. The former is an honest, self-aware recognition of one’s abilities as a leader, the latter is rooted in negative self-esteem coupled with a need for social approval. Legitimate self-confidence is honest and authentic; defensive self-confidence is delusional. The legitimately self-confident leader knows when to ask for help and is willing to do so. The defensively self-confident leader is afraid to ask for help.

Now, let’s look at what humility is and is not. Humility is not weakness, it is an acknowledgement that you are imperfect, that you have strengths AND weaknesses, that you have room to grow. Humility isn’t putting yourself down; it’s simply an honest, objective, self-aware look at yourself. Humility, to me, also acknowledges that you didn’t gain your strengths on your own. Sure, hard work is a factor in gaining one’s strengths, but strengths also come from the help of others, and a bit of luck. Humility acknowledges your strengths, but doesn’t carry with it the arrogance of believing that you did it on your own.

I’m not alone in linking humility to leadership excellence. Jim Collins writes about “Level 5 Leadership,” which is the highest level of his Level 5 Hierarchy. (Did I really need to say that?) Level 5 leaders are associated with what Collins calls “great companies.” In a Harvard Business Review article, Collins states that Level 5 leaders combine personal humility with tremendous, unwavering will. He points out that these highly effective leaders focus not on self-aggrandizement, but rather on building great organizations for the benefit of those involved and affected. This draws an interesting parallel to other academic work on humility. In a 2005 article on humility and leadership, J. Andrew Morris and his colleagues posit that in the context of leadership, humility has three dimensions, self-awareness, openness and transcendence. Their concept of transcendence is essentially a belief in something greater than oneself. This idea closely parallels the idea of purposefulness. Purposeful leaders believe in something larger, and more enduring than themselves. There is an inherent humility in acknowledging that we are part of a larger, more important whole. Thus, an unwavering focus on an organization’s purpose can carry with it a certain humility. Focusing on an important, meaningful organizational purpose gives leaders and workers alike a sense of contributing to something important and enduring. According to Collins (and I agree), for truly great leaders, personal ambition and praise takes a backseat to accomplishing something more significant and lasting. Great leaders are driven by purpose not praise.

Leaders still need to have the confidence of those they lead. This is difficult to accomplish without self-confidence.

So what is the common ground between humility and self-confidence? It seems to me the common ground is honest self-awareness. Self-confidence is an honest self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses. And humility is a self-aware acknowledgement of the same, coupled with a recognition that others contributed to the development of your strengths. So, if you want to have and project legitimate self-confidence, while at the same time being authentically humble, become more self-aware. So, how do you become more self-aware? First, recognize that you’re not perfect, and you don’t need to be. Being overly critical of yourself is a good way to slide into defensive self-confidence. Reflect on your successes and setbacks. Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and how they impact your leadership. When facing situations where your weaknesses may get in the way, ask for help. Oddly enough, this simultaneously boosts your self-confidence and your humility. Asking for help when you need it shows a certain amount of courage, which boosts your self-confidence. At the same time, you’re honestly recognizing that you aren’t perfect, which enhances your humility.

Let me leave you with a quote attributed to Harry Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” A leader’s job is to show others how they can and do contribute to some higher purpose; it’s not to hog the credit. Have the confidence to allow others to take credit, and have the humility to recognize that it’s not all about you. Do this, and you’ll have what defines leaders – followers. FBN


I’m both proud and humble to serve as dean of Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of our 3,500 students. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.






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