Confident Humility: Underrated

By: | Category: Women at Work

The most appropriate way I could think of to describe the concept of confident humility is underrated, a currently popular term that my 14-year old daughter utters 20 times a day. As a prime example of an oxymoron, it begs the question – is it possible to display confidence yet remain humble? The definition of humility is ‘a lack of arrogance’ or a ‘a modest or low view of one’s own importance’ and is often synonymous with being meek, submissive or unassertive. Confidence is defined as ‘a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities’. It is a prized trait that depicts self-assurance, worthiness and power. In boardrooms across the country, confidence is overrated. The negative aspects of arrogance and self-centered behavior that are correlated with confidence, are often ignored, as confidence is consistently allowed to trump competence effortlessly and humility is ignored and neglected.

As a society we give confidence considerably more weight than it deserves and bestow the utmost respect on those who project it, even when they provide no substance to back it up. History has demonstrated that many investors have been lulled into parting with millions to support confident leaders who quickly crashed and burned when it came to execution. Additionally, the enormous success of late-night infomercials demonstrates that as a society we value empty promises delivered with confidence over consistent data and proven experiences. Having been burned by these scenarios, why do we continue to set ourselves up over and over for failure? How long will we let this go on before we realize it does not serve us well?

Lack of confidence has been cited as one reason women in the workplace fail to advance at the same rate as men. I would argue that while individual cases may vary, overall, women don’t lack confidence. Just ask any man whether his wife or mother was ever too shy to confidently share her opinion on what he should be doing at home. And I am sure you will admit that plenty of mothers, that you know personally, won’t hesitate to get aggressive with anyone threatening their children. No, in my opinion, lack of confidence is not the problem. I believe it is the pressured influence of conditioned humility that forces women’s confidence out of balance in the workplace, as they reject arrogance. We allow our humility to subdue our confidence at work, despite our ample competence, in an effort to avoid arrogance. In the comfort of our home however, we have more control and can seek a healthier balance. As equal founders of our home, we are the co-authors of the household playbook and can craft rules that avoid arrogance, honor our humility and still maintain our confidence.

From grade school, women have been taught that if we just work harder and don’t get ourselves into trouble, our natural abilities and brilliance will be apparent to those around us and our reward will obviously be forthcoming. After having this formula repeatedly reinforced throughout our school years, we bring these notions into the workplace and are astounded as men around us seem to get acknowledged on a more regular basis. We have no doubt that they are not more capable than us, and often can prove that our activities have more significant impact than theirs. Why then do their activities get noticed and recognized more than ours?

We hesitate to tout our own accomplishments, concerned we may come off as boastful, and believe our competence speaks for itself. We default to our humility as we reject the arrogant aspect of confidence. Time and again though, there seems to be one major issue we fail to recognize in these situations.

Both men and women leaders are trained to follow the traditional corporate playbook that has been passed on from generation to generation and is slow to evolve, despite drastic disruptions to industry and the labor force. This corporate playbook was built by the good old boys, the titans of industry. It was intended to highlight the traits that were demonstrated by the most successful leaders of the day. Sadly, women were not a big part of that at the time.

Young grade school boys weren’t scolded for not being proper or humble, for being too bossy or for dominating conversations. Rather, they were celebrated for being energetic, rambunctious and assertive. They were raised to rough house during recess, to man-up when they were picked on, and to let schoolyard brawls roll off their backs. And this is where the prestige of confidence was born. It was the most envied trait in the schoolyard.

Women who confidently ruled the classroom, are not always familiar with schoolyard conventions. They therefore don’t always understand or accept the unwritten scorecard infused in the traditional corporate playbook. At times they recognize they are on a journey without a map and naturally tend to be more cautious, reluctant to get it wrong. It is this hesitation that often mischaracterizes them as insecure and not confident. A hesitation that is caused, not by a lack of confidence, but rather a deliberate preference for lack of arrogance and a desire to do what it takes to get it right.

We need to expedite the process of rewriting the corporate playbooks and modernize them for our times. The revisions should not be to ‘accommodate’ women or other humble leaders, but rather to seek out the ideal skill set that is indicative of our strongest leaders. Confidence is definitely among those skill sets, but arrogance is not. We need to do a better job distinguishing between the two.

A recent Stanford Business School study analyzed the success of leaders who displayed traditional male strengths, traditional female strengths as well as a combination of the two. According to the study, traditional male strengths included aggression, assertiveness and confidence, while traditional female strengths included collaboration, process orientation, persuasion and humility. The study found that leaders who display a combination of both male and female strengths do better than either of the other two groups and get promoted 1.5 to 2 times faster than everyone else.

Thinking about the results of the study, they seem obvious. It’s easy to see that humility without confidence can be viewed as weakness and that confidence without humility can be viewed as arrogance. In the new edition of our corporate playbooks we should not reward either of these traits. Neither exemplifies the traits of an ideal leader. Instead we should reward leaders who are able to display confident humility and find the appropriate balance of traits required to perfect the formula for the next generation. To develop these new blended traits in our leaders, we need to help them balance their natural tendencies.

To help our leaders who display traditional female strengths only, we should push them to take more risk and squash their need for perfection. We should encourage failing fast and provide an environment that is less devastating when mistakes occur. We should take the time to analyze their data and performance metrics and give them more weight than our gut feelings and beliefs. Confidence without arrogance, needs to be viewed as a talent in their professional toolkit that is demonstrated with their authentic flair rather than merely attempting to mimic male behavior.

To help our leaders who display traditional male strengths only, encourage active listening, and working on the tendency to have to speak first. Instead, ask them to incorporate what others say into their contributions to demonstrate collaboration and openness to other points of view. Praise confidence, discourage arrogance and celebrate humility. Provide an environment where it is acceptable to admit you don’t know the answer and praise those that are willing to get in the trenches with their team. When confidently asserting their claims, challenge these leaders to back them up with data and logic and teach them to take time to evaluate risks before diving head first.

When confidence and humility are successfully combined, a leader develops; one with great credibility who can influence and impact effectively. Striking the proper balance is a very nuanced process that requires a great deal of practice. Leaders who choose to accept the challenge will undoubtedly stand out as the titans of industry of the future.
Will you be one of those leaders?