The Secret to Successful Leadership: Confident Humility

“Fake it till you make it” is horrible advice

Bobby Powers
Dec 24, 2019 · 5 min read
Image Credit: Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

I was sitting in a cabin alone, but I was freaking out.

I was on my first “solo retreat” — a chance to rest and recharge with a weekend of reading, writing, meditating, praying, and walking in the woods. The weekend was meant for relaxation, but my mind was speeding like a race car.

When I scheduled the getaway two months earlier, I had no way of knowing that the Friday I departed for my solo retreat would be the biggest day of my young career.

That morning, my company announced that I would become the newest (and youngest) director at the firm. The day before, I had been leading a team of 12 people. On Friday, my team expanded to 160 people on two continents. My promotion jettisoned me up two rungs of our company’s corporate ladder; I had become my boss’s boss.

After a raucous day of congratulations, pats on the back, and head-spinning changes, I jumped in my car and made the two-hour drive to the mountain cabin on Friday night.

As I collapsed in one of the cabin chairs, I asked myself, “How in the hell am I going to lead this new team?” Most of the team leads who now reported to me had been with the company far longer than I had, knew much more than I did, and had little reason to trust me as the new director.

I was scheduled to lead my first meeting with my new direct reports on Monday. I wondered: How was I supposed to act in that meeting? Should I exhibit confidence to prove to everyone that I could indeed lead this team? Or should I exhibit humility and show I was willing to defer to others’ judgment?

As someone who consumes dozens of business books every year, I knew that there were different schools of thought about how to step into a new leadership role. Half of the authors said things like “Fake it till you make it,” and the other half advised new leaders to trust your direct reports and wait before making any major changes.

After thinking about this dilemma for hours in the cabin, a phrase came to mind that has guided my leadership ever since: “confident humility.”

What Is Confident Humility?

Confident people know what they know and they know what they don’t know. When they speak, they do so boldly and clearly because they are speaking from experience and understanding.

Humble people admit they don’t know everything, and they take accountability for their own mistakes. They seek to understand others, ask questions to learn from others, and listen closely to the answers to those questions.

Confident humility is the fusion of these two attitudes. It avoids the extremes of arrogance (unbridled confidence) and passivity (unbridled humility).

Confident humility is having the modesty to understand whether you’re the best person to make a decision. It means learning from others when they’re the expert and acting with boldness when you’re the expert.

Bob Iger Example

Image Credit: Josh Hallett on Flickr

Disney CEO Bob Iger (pictured above) describes the essence of confident humility (albeit in different words) in his new book The Ride of a Lifetime.

Before Disney acquired ABC, Iger was an executive at ABC Sports and ABC Television. Back in 1989, he was asked to become Head of ABC Entertainment, which marked the first time that someone running the operation didn’t come from the world of entertainment. “I wasn’t sure anyone from outside Hollywood had held that job at any of the networks,” writes Iger.

There was a TON that Iger didn’t know about this new role. In fact, Iger was so intimidated by the role that he initially tried to turn down the promotion, but the owners of the company told him they had full confidence in him.

Iger eventually decided to accept the role. Here’s how he describes what was going through his head when he started as Head of ABC Entertainment:

“So what do you do in a situation like that? The first rule is not to fake anything. You have to be humble, and you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not or to know something you don’t. You’re also in a position of leadership, though, so you can’t let humility prevent you from leading. It’s a fine line, and something I preach today. You have to ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can. There’s nothing less confidence-inspiring than a person faking a knowledge they don’t possess. True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.”

As Iger recognizes, “Fake it till you make it” is horrible advice. False confidence gives off an odor as potent as dog crap on the bottom of a tennis shoe. Team members can tell when a leader doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Iger realized that he had to act with confident humility (my words — not his) in order to become the leader ABC needed. He had to admit what he didn’t know, learn from those around him, and take action with confidence once he learned the ropes.

How to Exhibit Confident Humility

“Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve.” -Wynton Marsalis

Here’s what it looks like to exhibit confident humility as a leader:

  • Admit your knowledge gaps, then work to fill those gaps
  • Ask others for their ideas and input
  • Defer to others when they’re the expert
  • Speak up when you’re the expert
  • Once you’ve gathered enough information, boldly pull the trigger
  • Don’t take credit for others’ successes

After my weekend solo retreat, I kicked off my Monday meeting with my new team by telling them that I was honored to step into the role and I was excited to learn from all of them. I admitted that there were a ton of things I didn’t know, and even pointed out a few key areas where I didn’t have knowledge and was looking to learn from all of them.

It was scary to admit my knowledge gaps to everyone, but doing so set a precedent of honesty, vulnerability, and teamwork. We would need to work together as a group to succeed.

Through this experience, I realized that if you respect your team’s knowledge and abilities, they’ll also come to respect yours. There’s no need to fake anything.

Confident humility is having the modesty to understand whether you’re the best person to make a decision. It means learning from others when they’re the expert and acting with boldness when you’re the expert.

Employees want to follow someone who exhibits confidence, and they want to emulate someone who exhibits humility.

Confidence generates followers; humility generates disciples. You’ll need both to become a successful leader.

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Bobby Powers

Written by

Voracious reader | Awakening writer | Passionate about business & leadership | Director of L&D @ Spokn | Visit me at BobbyPowers.net

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

Bobby Powers

Written by

Voracious reader | Awakening writer | Passionate about business & leadership | Director of L&D @ Spokn | Visit me at BobbyPowers.net

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

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