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The Humility-Confidence SeeSaw: The Untold Secret of Great Leaders

Oct 29, 2015 11 min readSelf-Improvement
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

Try to think back to a time when you felt incredibly confident.

You instinctively knew you could handle whatever came at you. You were on top of things, making all the right moves. You were in the zone.

It’s an amazing feeling, and one that we’d probably all like to have more often.

The book The Confidence Code gets right to the point of why this element is so crucial in our lives:

“Scholars are coming to see (confidence) as an essential element of internal well-being and happiness, a necessity for a fulfilled life. Without it you can’t achieve flow, the almost euphoric state described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as perfect concentration; the alignment of one’s skills with the task at hand.”

We’re attracted to confidence—the true, deeply felt kind that inspires us to follow great leaders to the ends of the earth.

But go one shade darker and we find arrogance.

What’s the line between the two? It seems to be humility. True confidence can stand up to a lot, and the biggest thing it can do is stand back and make room for others’ thoughts and ideas.

Read on to discover how the two elements of confidence and humility intertwine in every interaction we have, and learn how to develop the perfect blend of both.

confidence and humility

Confident humility: Is it possible?

Both confidence and humility have giant roles in making you a respected person—and an effective leader.

The balance between the two can be incredibly delicate and nuanced, which is why I was delighted to find this sketch that perfectly illustrates the relationship:


Looking at this simple diagram, I have an immediate idea about where I tend to fall on the spectrum (toward the self-deprecation side). How about you?

The paradoxical duality of these two traits is so rare that they’re at the very pinnacle of Good to Great author Jim Collins’ leadership pyramid: Level 5.

Level 5 leadership, marked by what Collins calls “professional will and personal humility,” is what creates great companies—those that have gone from “good” to “great.”


So how do we get this elusive combo for ourselves?

The science of confidence: Why we have no idea how good we are at anything

Part of the reason that it’s a challenge to get the right blend of confidence and humility is that…well, we don’t know ourselves very well.

Consider this evidence: Though it’s statistically pretty impossible, 93% of us think we are better than average drivers. And 94% of university professors rate their teaching skills as better than average.

The average person thinks she or he is…well, better than average.

So do we have a confidence problem or a humility problem? It’s a bit of both.

Turns out, the most incompetent of us are also the most likely to overestimate ourselves, while the MVPs among us tend to underrate ourselves.

In other words, the gulf between how good we are at something and how good we think we are at something is often huge!

This paradox is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Jessica Hagy illustrates it like this:

Dunning Kruger

And in my mind, it pretty much sums up how weird our brains are when it comes to confidence, humility and self-evaluation.

Confidence or humility: Where do you fall?

So perhaps the first thing to know about building this perfect ratio is where you are now—do you skew more toward arrogance (too much or misplaced confidence) or self-deprecation (too little confidence)? Here are some things to consider.

  • Consider your gender:  Overall, women tend to err toward humility and men tend to err toward overconfidence. In studies, Columbia Business School found that men, on average, rate their performance to be 30 percent better than it is.
  • Consider your part of the world: Psychologist David Dunning says that where you fall on the spectrum varies by your part of the world and its culture. Eastern cultures are more likely to value self-improvement, while Western culture venerates self-esteem.
  • Take the quiz: Still not sure? Take the Confidence Code confidence quiz! I’d love to hear how you did. (My results? Low confidence. Time to put some of the tactics below to work!)

Some signs you might have low confidence:

The Confidence Code offers up a many great anecdcotes about how low confidence manifests itself; here are a few telltale signs you might recognize:

  • You have a long list of all the things over the years you wish you had said or done or tried— but didn’t.
  • You don’t initiate salary negotiations—or if you do, you value your worth too low. (Studies with business school students found that men, who are traditionally more confident, initiate salary negotiations 4 times as often as women. When women do negotiate, they ask for 30% percent less than men do.)
  • You hesitate at key moments.
  • You imagine that whatever you have done— whether it’s a triumph or a failure— is the focus of everyone else’s attention.

Some signs you might be a bit overconfident:

In researching this post, I came across a great and succinct list from Martin Babinec of behaviors it might be helpful to look out for if you feel you might be veering into arrogance. Some of these list points may be tough to read, particularly if you see yourself reflected (I know I did).

  • Work your accomplishments into the conversation
  • Don’t focus on what you don’t yet know or are seeking to learn
  • Express no curiosity about whom you’re interacting with
  • Enter into interactions mostly for reasons of potential self interest
  • Treat servers, drivers or other service personnel different than those you meet in a professional context

It’s interesting how most of these–both low and high confidence—have a big element of ego to them. Eckhart Tolle has some wise words on this:

“I have also met many others who may be technically good at what they do but whose ego constantly sabotages their work. Only part of their attention is on the work they perform; the other part is on themselves. Their ego demands personal recognition and wastes energy in resentment if it doesn’t get enough— and it’s never enough. ‘Is someone else getting more recognition than me?’ Or their main focus of attention is profit or power, and their work is no more than a means to that end. When work is no more than a means to an end, it cannot be of high quality.”

If you need more confidence: 6 ways to get it

1. Squash perfectionism

Everyone knows the old trick of the job interview: If the interviewer asks you what your faults are, duck out of the question by saying that your biggest fault is that you’re a perfectionist. Now you look great!

Author Elizabeth Gilbert wants to kill the idea that perfectionism can be a good quality. In her book on creativity, Big Magic, she says:

“The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that is disguises itself as a virtue…I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. …perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I never will be good enough.’ …The drive for perfectionism is just a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is–if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.”

Perfection isn’t attainable, and it keeps us from taking action. Instead, focus on progress and improvement by developing a growth mindset.

2. Take risks

try stuff
“I’m not gonna be perfect, but I’m gonna try stuff.”

That’s the mantra that Tom Kelley, author of Creative Confidence, suggests to harness the courage to act on your ideas—artistic or otherwise.

A similar mantra to live by, from The Confidence Code: “When in doubt, act.” The authors note: “Nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure.”

3. Practice strong body language

Expressing confident body language can help us get better jobs, project our thoughts more often and more assertively and generally make us feel more successful. This chart sums up some great overall pointers:

confidence in meetings

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends quite a few power poses that have been proven to increase confidence: here are some (see all of them here).


4. Let go of your failures

It’s great to recognize and share stories of mistakes and failures—failure is the biggest way that we grow.

But those of us with lower confidence can dwell on past missteps long after we’ve learned everything we can from them.

Rewire your brain to break the negative feedback loop: Replace the failure thought with 3 achievements and successes (even small ones are great!) Or write them  down in order to recognize them, then find an alternate viewpoint.

5. Dress like a badass

dress like cookie

Sometimes you have to take some inspiration from heroes of fiction—like the formidable Cookie on Empire.

Jazmine Hughes, an associate editor at the New York Times magazine, took this tactic when she felt impostor syndrome creeping in. For a week, she donned the kind of over-the-top ensembles favored by the FOX show protagonist, and discovered a secret well of strength within herself.

When I told that coworker that I felt foolish and gaudy in my clothes, she was surprised. “I think you look amazing,” she told me. “Like you could get anything you ever wanted.” You just have to believe.​

6. Accept credit and compliments

How often have you shrugged off a compliment or replied that you didn’t deserve it? Owning your accomplishments rather than dismissing them is a powerful feeling.

The Confidence Code has a simple statement you can borrow if this is a tough one:

When praised, reply, “Thank you. I appreciate that.” Use it. It’s surprising how odd, and how powerful, saying those five words will feel.

If you need more humility: 5 ways to get it

Writing in the New York Times, Tony Schwartz provides what I think is a valuable definition of humility.

“Genuine humility is a reflection of neither weakness nor insecurity. Instead, it implies a respectful appreciation of the strengths of others, a lack of personal pretension and a more relaxed sense of confidence that doesn’t require external recognition.”

In this way, humility and confidence are surprisingly aligned—maybe even two sides of the same coin. If you’re looking to build the muscle of humility, here are a few ways:

1. Say ‘I don’t know’

Three of the most powerful words you can say to a team: “I don’t know.”

The Harvard Business Review explains:

“When leaders humbly admit that they don’t have all the answers, they create space for others to step forward and offer solutions. They also engender a sense of interdependence. Followers understand that the best bet is to rely on each other to work through complex, ill-defined problems.”

2. Be a servant leader

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

Leaders steeped in humility empower others to lead.

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, Here, Greenleaf says:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…”

In action, it might look a bit like this:


3. Share your mistakes

Not only openly admitting mistakes but learning from them and sharing your experience with others is one of the most powerful ways to practice humility.

Making one’s self this vulnerable isn’t always easy, but admitting mistakes and imperfections can often open the door for exciting conversations and big change (not to mention people will like you more—we tend to connect with those who share their imperfections).

4. Seek different viewpoints

A key way to practice humility is to seek out and engage with those with different points of view.

We deeply value listening at Buffer, and Joel recently described how he handles change in a way that perfectly illustrates the value of seeking out other voices before making a decision:

“Once I start to find myself moving towards a solution for any challenge, I stop myself. I then speak with those who will be affected by any potential changes to solve the challenge I’ve found. When I do this, I try to share all the context, without a solution.The goal of this method is that often I’m not even the one who comes up with solutions, and the changes we make are more fully embraced as a result.”

5. Reframe your view: Me to we

Good to Great author Jim Collins offers up two points about the qualities of humble leaders that really resonate with me. The humble leader:

  • Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even greater success in the next generation.
  • Looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and good luck.

When your ego threatens to get in the way, try reframing. Remind yourself that you serve on behalf of the team, or the organization, or for the benefit of others, rather than for yourself. This method, counterintuitively, is one from The Confidence Code designed to increase confidence by moving the spotlight, but I think it works just as well for humility building.

One final note: Is overconfidence always bad?

We’ve talked a lot about how overconfidence can spill over into arrogance, but is that always the case? Research from The Confidence Code says no.

Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, studied confidence in students and found that those with the highest confidence (even when the confidence was misplaced) “achieved the highest social status”—including respect, prominence, and influence. “Despite being the less competent students, they ended up being the most respected and had the most influence with their peers.”

Their overconfidence did not come across as narcissistic or arrogant because they weren’t faking it—and that made others gravitate toward them.

Here’s how I read this: As long as you keep focused on humility and the beginner’s mind, it seems that there’s no amount of confidence that’s inherently bad—and it might even be beneficial.

As an example, entrepreneurs have been shown to be overconfident in a number of ways:

And all of that might be the reason that they can do what they do, despite overwhelming odds against them. Entrepreneur and angel investor David S. Rose told The New Yorker:

“You have to have an unreasonable level of confidence as an entrepreneur, or you’ll never get started. Starting a company is extraordinarily difficult, even agonizing. You need self-confidence and ego to get through it.”

Over to you!

It was truly enlightening to explore the relationship between confidence and humility and discover that they can, in fact, live together in harmony—with wondrous results. It’s our job to keep working toward that perfect seesaw balance.

Which are you more focused on working on: confidence or humility? How have the two worked together in your life? Have you encountered humble confidence in others, and how did it feel to you? Excited to hear all of your thoughts in the comments!

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