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October 8, 1997

Living in Truth: Feeling Confident AND Being Humble

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Basketball fans at the University of Arkansas celebrate their home victories by singing a slightly altered version of the 1980 Mac Davis song, “Oh, Lord, it’s Hard to be Humble.” The players and cheerleaders go into the student section of Walton Arena, lock arms, sway left and right, and sing along with the music from the school’s band.

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me
I must be one hell of a fan.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re an Arkansas Razorbacks fan.”

Ironically, Davis wrote the original version of that song early one morning when he found himself all alone. As the headlining act for a popular nightclub, he got to sleep in one of the nicest suites in a top-flight hotel. He had written hit records for Elvis, hosted his own television show, topped the charts as a country singer, and earned top billing as a live performer. But there he was, alone in his fancy hotel suite with nothing to keep him company but his guitar and his sense of humor.

Humility is no joke for those of us in the business community, though. If we go long enough without humility, life finds a way of delivering a big batch of it to our doorsteps. If we wallow in it, however, we’ll never leave our front yard. So one of the greatest challenges leaders face is striking that balance between humility and confidence.

A leader without confidence simply isn’t a leader. Action always flows from self-assurance. There is nothing wrong with knowing what you are good at and moving forward without apology to make it happen. That is what leaders do. But an overdose of self-confidence always ends up smelling rotten. You might not smell it, but others will. And they eventually react to it in some unpleasant ways.

Humility doesn’t mean that you dismiss your strengths. It simply means that you realize you aren’t the sum total of the formula for success. Any formula for success includes other people, favorable circumstances and, usually, a pinch of luck. Humility is the genuine adoption of that mindset.

Being confident means accepting who you are and doing what you know needs to be done. Being humble means recognizing what you aren’t, accepting who others are and showing a willingness to enlist their help. Confidence does not mean omni-competence, and humility does not mean self-flagellation. Being confident means having the boldness to move forward when you are strong in a certain area. Being humble means admitting your shortcomings and asking the help of others whose strengths complement your weaknesses. Together they create the alloy for a potent leader.

The Apostle Paul was a hard-driving leader who did not slow down to pander to anyone, yet he had the broader wisdom to admit the importance to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Sober judgment. Healthy self-awareness. That kind of balanced self-assessment is what it means to be confident and humble at the same time. In fact, you could make a case that true humility embodies honest confidence. To be truly humble is to understand the truth about yourself, the truth about others and the truth about your situation. To accomplish this presupposes that you approach each of these with a certain level of confidence.

As you travel down the pathway to wholeness as a leader there is, perhaps, no greater combination that will affect those you seek to lead. An overconfident jerk of a leader will not engender trust in followers. But a leader who operates from a position of honest humility—in both work life and private life—is a leader others want to follow. The humble leader is an effective leader.

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