- Some say that you cannot be humble and confident at the same time. How would you respond to that statement?
So much depends on how we think of these two qualities. If humility means being easily dominated, or weak, there’s not much incentive for a leader to be humble. If we think confidence is being domineering or arrogant, always needing to be right, there’s little appeal to this trait.
Set aside these distorted views. Think of humility as bringing out the best in others, seeking their views, truly listening, being teachable. Think of confidence as taking action after having thought through a matter, gained counsel from others, and boldly expressing your view, having arrived at a clear position. Viewed this way, the two qualities not only co-exist, but nicely complement each other.
- Can you share some examples of what humility looks like in the leader?
Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. Yet in a conversation I had with one of his Secret Service detail, he said of the president: “We love him.” As I dug deeper, the agent said, “Look, he is always the same. It may be two a.m. on Air Force One, but he’s interested in us, our families. We love him.”
President Reagan didn’t flaunt his position or take himself too seriously. He understood true leadership doesn’t occur apart from caring for and serving others.
- Do you believe that a leader can be confident, but not self-centered? What does that look like in the leader’s actions?
Confident leaders base their confidence in principled positions more than in their own capabilities. They are confident in what is right, what is true, what is just. Those are their positions of strength.
The Apostle Paul was a confident leader, enough to say, “I can do all things.” Suppose he had stopped there. We could rightly say he was self-centered. But he didn’t stop there. He said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” His confidence wasn’t in himself.
- Why do followers prefer humble leaders, in your opinion?
Of course there are cultures and even circumstances where followers look up to the strong, even domineering leader. For example, I’ve seen this in parts of Africa, where the strong tribal leader is well regarded for his authoritarian leadership. But these are often unhealthy relationships. Not infrequently they lead to an abuse of power.
Most followers welcome the opportunity to have their opinions heard and considered by their leader. They appreciate being part of the process. They want to be valued. They want to go home from work at the end of the day, and say, “This is what I did today,” not, “This is what they did to me.”
- There is data in books like From Good to Great (Jim Collins) and Give & Take (Adam Grant) that suggests a humble leader delivers superior financial performance results, yet most of the “success stories” we hear about are led by self-focused leaders. What do you make of that?
While there are certainly examples of leaders who have both been arrogant and produced good financial results, there are likewise many examples of those who have, through a haughty approach, lost key executives, lost customers and lost support from their boards, ultimately damaging their businesses.
I prefer to think of business success as more than the bottom line, and to see that overall success includes the development of people, establishing durable bonds with customers and a welcome posture in their communities and circles of influence.
- In your career, can you share a story of a leader lacking humility—and how that impacted the team and their performance?
I watched the CEO of a company on whose board I served run roughshod over key people, dismiss their ideas and contributions, take every good idea as his own, and exhibit greed regarding his own pay and benefits. Frankly, I found his conduct offensive. He lost good people, produced fearful followers among those who remained, and until his dismissal, presided over a company that was unpleasant to work for and floundered in its financial results.
- When you see a leader struggling with humility, what is your counsel to them?
We do others a service when we graciously point out the possible impact of pride and arrogance. Indeed, pride does go before a fall. If we have taken care to build trusting relationships with others, a timely warning should not be an offense, but a welcome adjustment.
The Bible has lots to say about humility, pride, and arrogance. If a person is open to the teaching of Scriptures, they can be greatly helped. For example, the Bible says we are to humble ourselves. That takes initiative on our part. It means taking the lower seat, honoring others. Now the sobering lesson from the Bible is that God doesn’t humble us, but he will, if necessary, allow us to be humiliated.
- Who was your role model for confident, humble leadership?
I mentioned President Reagan earlier, and I don’t know of a better example. Recently I visited his ranch in California, and saw fences and patios he constructed with his own hands. I saw his favorite chair, with a simple phone nearby, on which he would speak with world leaders. I saw his workshop where his well-organized tools were maintained. The entire experience conveyed a blend of simplicity and power—humility and confidence.
- Any other parting thoughts for leaders who aspire to be both confident and humble
No commentary on this topic would be complete without pointing to the ultimate example of these two traits beautifully blended together. Jesus set aside his position at the right hand of God to become a humble servant. He did that for us. But, never doubting his mission, he strode through his thirty-three years on earth with supreme confidence. “I have been given all authority,” he could assert without a hint of arrogance.
So my parting thought is to look at the Master. From him, we can glean these qualities honed to perfection, and draw inspiration for our own daily walk
John D. Beckett joined his father in a small family-owned manufacturing business in 1963, and became president in 1965 upon the death of his father. He is now chairman of the company, and has helped guide the business to worldwide leadership in the manufacture and sales of engineered components for residential and commercial heating. The company, with its affiliates, currently has sales exceeding $150 million, with more than 1000 employees.
Mr. Beckett is a founding board member of The King’s College in New York City and serves on the board of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ International).
His first book, Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, was published in 1998 by InterVarsity Press. His second book, Mastering Monday: A Practical Guide to Integrating Faith and Work, was released in July 2006.
Mr. Beckett resides in Elyria, Ohio, with his wife, Wendy, to whom he has been married since 1961. They have six children and seventeen grandchildren.