Can Confidence and Humility Coexist in a Leader?

Leadership Confdence Humility

A Lesson in the Airport

The other day I was in an airport lounge preparing for my latest consulting trip. The lounge was filled with the usual business types chatting on their cell phones, having drinks and generally conveying an air of self-importance. An employee came by to clean up my area, collecting glasses and trash. She greeted me and I replied by asking her how she was doing. Her response? “I’m so blessed by God to have a job.”

This woman had what many consider a very undesirable job. Cleaning up trash after people who rarely show gratitude. Yet she was so grateful to have the job and clearly proud to say so. Her response humbled me and reminded me how far I need to go to have that kind of joyful gratitude for everything in my life. Her response also got me thinking about the importance of humility in leadership.

Can Humility and Confidence Coexist?

Humility and confidence are surely opposites, are they not? But great leaders have both. They are very self-aware, so they understand their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. Great leaders leverage their strengths and put themselves in situations which play to their best abilities. Because they have confidence, not many things, or people, intimidate them. People follow confident leaders. They portray assuredness, decisiveness and action. They achieve results others are unable to duplicate. They accomplish great things.

Confident, Not Arrogant

Unbridled confidence can easily slip into arrogance. Unfortunately, many people will also follow arrogant leaders. Leaders who become arrogant can achieve short-term success, but there is a key difference between confidence and arrogance. Arrogance will ultimately result in downfall. Over time, arrogant leaders fail to accurately assess risk. They will say or do something that causes harm to them, their company, their team and in some cases their family. The statements of famous individuals after their fall from grace show common themes. They thought they were above consequences and in some cases the law. It did not occur to them they might actually get caught one day. In short, they stopped adequately assessing risk in their lives and/or careers.

Humility: Protection Against Arrogance

In order to protect yourself against arrogance, your confidence must be balanced with humility. Accept your strengths and be confident in your abilities. But when you become more and more successful how do you guard against arrogance? By believing in something greater than yourself. Many of the best leaders I work with are genuinely in awe of the positions, success and influence they have attained. They did not seek to become a CEO, CFO or General Counsel. Instead, they focus on doing their jobs to the best of their ability and let the outcomes take care of themselves. They understand many things happen beyond their control. They understand their abilities are given to them, not self-created. They work hard to perfect those abilities, but they understand they are a gift. They are grateful for their abilities, opportunities and success. Because they believe in something greater than themselves, their humility and gratitude prevents confidence from turning to arrogance.

Leaders, understand your success is not just about you. Humility and gratitude are your protection against arrogance.


  1. Back at you Karin, great post by you as well. Look forward to our chat soon.

  2. Great post. I believe they can. Here are my 9 ways.

  3. Bo, definitely believe in the concept and power of quiet confidence. You feel it when you are in the presence of this type of leader. Love your description of the experience of confidence and humanity. The title of the book you referenced?

  4. There is a great little book out on the topic of humility. The book profiles a number of fairly high profile leaders that you may or may not have heard of, but would easily recognize as quality leaders. Each demonstrate what I refer to as “quiet confidence.” Their humility keeps their confidence in check. Their strength is real strength, grounded in self-awareness. Their humility comes from knowing who and what they are (humans with faults) and from knowing that they, like every other person in this world, offer a unique value to society, none out weighing the others.

    I have met many of the leaders profiled (doctor, politician, corporate leader and a military leader) and you would never walk away wondering about their confidence level, but you’d also never feel that they thought they were anything more than what they are, humans!

  5. Although Rare, I believe it does exist.

    A position of Power builds Confidence, Confidence can then builds the Ego and then Ego can end up consuming even the best of a Leader. We all know what happens from there…

    I’m proud to say that I work for a company which recognizes this common threat and proactively created a list of 10 Guiding Principles that guide us and our business day end and day out. It is a huge part of our unique culture.

    These Guiding Principles are: 1) Integrity, 2) Compliance, 3) Value Creation, 4) Principled Entrepreneurship, 5) Customer Focus, 6) Knowledge, 7) Change, 8) HUMILITY, 9) Respect, 10) Fulfillment.

    I’m also proud to say that these are not just hollow words to pretend to live by, nor are they printed and framed only to be hung up on the walls to be used as PR Tool to impress visitors. We are constantly discussing, sharing and teaching each other these Principles and use them day in and day out. From the bottom of the Organizational chart to the very top, we are each held accountable to hold each other accountable.

    These 10 Principles are what guide me in making the right/best decision during times of uncertainty. They also give us a tool to hold each other in check. Although I’ve been with this organization only a few years, it didn’t take me long to recognize the Confidence in our Leadership, as well as the Humility they convey. (instead of arrogance)

    So “YES” It is possible. However, I believe it is very rare as it takes a tremendous amount of Commitment, Investment and Accountability at EVERY LEVEL of an organization.

    • Steven, you are very fortunate to work in an organization that truly lives by the principles you mentioned. I agree the combination we are discussing is rare but does exist. It’s easy to have a team session and create hollow words. The true test is whether the words (purpose, vision, values, etc.) truly guide people moving forward.

  6. cillia mphephu says:

    Interesting discussion indeed, …and great viewpoints above I must say!
    …I think yes, both confidence and humility can coexist in a leader, as much as other great qualities like robustness and respect can also coexist. I however think it’s critically important to appreciate the diverse qualities that exist out there, to be able to allow innovation to prevail. It would be such displeasure for me to work with someone who fakes a combination of confidence and humility just for the sake of meeting expectations. Afterall, great leadership is made possible by a medley or should I say a cocktail of many exceptional qualities put together. Should a combination of confidence and humility be found to be somewhat wanting, other powerful qualities might as well kick in to keep things in form. Needless to say that there’s no “one recipe fit all” when it comes to leadership given the vastly different business environments that exist. I agree with Prasad about including wisdom as an overarching ingredient, as that will ensure that one uses the most effective way of engaging workforce.

    • Cillia–Your comment about the displeasure associated with leaders who fake the combination of confidence and humility is so true. I often find these types of leaders lacking in what I would describe as genuine confidence–that being a true understanding, appreciation and acceptance of their strengths and weaknesses. With that perspective one can be confident and humble. Without it, I’ve seen leaders with false confidence (and usually high ambition) who are following a formula for being humble because they know it will help them advance. Insightful people see through the false front.

  7. Hello Prasad,
    I really like including wisdom as an overarching/unifying concept in this discussion. You are definitely correct about false humility. So easily spotted, isn’t it?

  8. wisdom requires both confidence and humility. Confident in being who you are and humble to learn from others. Too much of confidence leads to arrogance as it was pointed out earlier and false humility is just a show and people pick it up quickly quickly and dismiss you.

  9. Nice perspective Dabulamanzi. I agree with your description of the optimal combination of both qualities in great leaders. I believe what I describe in the post as arrogance can also be thought of as false confidence. Regarding your last sentence, I agree that one cannot have the ultimate form of confidence we are both describing without humility. I have, however, seen and worked with people who are truly humble but lack confidence. They are much nicer to work with than the opposite!

  10. Dabulamanzi BJ Maseko says:

    Personally I do not see humility and confidence as being on opposite sides, because one cannot be truly humble is thy are not confident, and vice versa. True humility is the best sign of true confidence, which is a state where you know you can and you do not have to flaunt it-you do not to prove it. This is the state of humility. It, together with confidence flow from an inner knowing.There are two classical examples that I can give to illustrate the point: one is Jesus, HE did not have to prove HE was the son of GOD, because HE know, and the knowledge gave HIM the confidence to be humble. Another is Bruce Lee, he was so confident in his ability that when people coexed him into a fight, he ran away. In conclusion, one cannot be truly confident if they are not humble and they cannot be truly humble if they are not cinfiident.

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