One of the more interesting servant leadership questions I am asked is this: can you be humble and confident?
This question stems from inaccurate assumptions about these two words. First, the assumption that humility looks weak. Second, the assumption that confidence looks like self-centered pride. Both are wrong.
Humility is acknowledging that you are not better than other people. When you see it in action, it is a person who simply thinks about others more often than themselves.
Humility is not weakness, insecurity, or indecision — although this is a common thought error.
Confidence, on the other hand, is the simple acknowledgement that you have certain strengths and capabilities. When you see confidence in action, the person is simply doing what they do to the best of their abilities. The person is secure in who they are.
Confidence is not self-centered, egotistical bravado — although this too is a common misperception.
I recently observed humility and confidence in action at our Popeyes Board Meeting. We had invited our three regional leaders from the International team to present their business plans to the Board. As you can imagine, this is a rare opportunity — and while most leaders were excited for the meeting, they also were a bit anxious.
The three leaders did an excellent job presenting to the board. It was because they were both humble and confident. Here’s what they did:
Each leader introduced themselves, telling a bit about their professional background, their families, and their particular passion. They told us a career highlight or two, but did not wax on about every single accomplishment. They told us about their families, including a story that gave insight into who they are. Then they shared a passion — for golf, learning, or a hobby — that revealed something you wouldn’t have known otherwise. In this introduction, they were warm, approachable, and genuine. They were humble, because they focused on helping the audience see a bit about who they were, but they didn’t need to convince us of their personal accomplishments.
Each leader presented their business plan for their region of the world. They provided a situation analysis. They shared a challenge that they had encountered in one market, and a success they had accomplished in another market. These individuals knew their facts, explained the business scenarios well, and evidenced their knowledge and experience in the region. They were confident enough to tell us that they had confronted a complex challenge which probably shouldn’t have ever happened. But it did — and they dealt with it. They were confident in the future, not because they were so sure of themselves, but because they had a plan, resources, and an approach to the future crafted by a team of capable colleagues.
Perhaps it was what was missing from their presentations, that made them most impressive. Among the three leaders, there was none of the following:
1. Oneupmanship: the need to evidence that they were better than their colleagues
2. Bravado: excessive descriptions of their personal role in the circumstances
3. Ego: need to be recognized and celebrated, apart from the team
There was also no evidence of these things:
1. Insecurity: expressions of self-doubt or unfounded anxiety
2. Indecision: an inability to tell you what they believed was the right decision to take
3. Weakness: lack of ability to get the job done
To be honest, I don’t think these three leaders are typical. I think they are a rare bunch, who have examined their purpose & principles for leadership, and chosen to be servant leaders. They are humble and confident. They are capable business leaders. And they are delivering superior results.
We can learn from their approach.