Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive

As I meet entrepreneurs seeking to launch their first startup, I’ve begun noticing behavioral traits I wasn’t paying much attention to before.

Signals I’m picking up more frequently are from entrepreneurs coming across as super confident (even aggressive), perhaps in an effort to show they are hard driving and ambitious.

While confidence in one’s beliefs is indeed a critical asset for a startup entrepreneur, my BS detector begins kicking in when I see a total absence of humility. The tells are things like:

– working their accomplishments into the conversation
– no hint of what they don’t yet know or are seeking to learn
– expressing no curiosity about whom they’re interacting with
– interactions appear motivated only by potential self interest – no evidence of “pay it forward”
– how they interact with others who serve or bump into them seems different than their style of interacting with those in a professional context

Because I’m an investor who looks hard at leadership qualities of the CEOs I want to work with, my mind gravitates towards thinking: “If this is what I’m noticing now, I wonder how it translates to future interactions this entrepreneur has with others they seek to recruit and lead?”

Humility as a leadership trait

If you’re looking for thoughtful insights backing up the quality of humility in leaders, check out Jim Collins’ Good To Great and his work profiling Level V leaders. His research supports the thesis that CEOs embodying the unusual combination of fierce resolve and personal humility ended up being a critical leadership trait for top performing companies in the study.

My own view was shaped most by my Dad and my wife Krista, but also the good fortune of having close contact with a bunch of exceptionally strong leaders who personify humility in how they lead and interact with whomever they meet.

Jack Stack, Founder/CEO of SRC and visionary behind the Great Game of Business would certainly top my list in exemplifying resolute commitment and personal humility. SRC is not only a phenomenally successful company that has transformed thousands of lives, but beyond Jack’s Southern gentleman’s humble style, his open sourcing of the GGOB and open book management practices empower a generation of entrepreneurs like me to embrace principles around getting everyone in a company to think and act like owners – the ultimate management humility as it means running an organization with the power bubbling from the bottom up.

Back in 1995, Anthony Martin, now retired Chairman/CEO of global staffing giant Select (and subsequently Vedior) picked TriNet to invest as one of the 40+ companies in his portfolio. Much to my benefit, he traveled “across the pond” for 10+ years to sit on TriNet’s Board of Directors. Soft spoken with never a wasted word, his gracious, gentle, almost patrician manner helped set the tone for our board meetings with wisdom that came through penetrating observations and questions that were so much more effective than the contrasting style of boards featuring competition to demonstrate who is the smartest guy in the room.

In the emerging tech world, anyone that knows or interacts with uber VC Brad Feld (@bfeld) will attest he gives so much of himself to so many causes (building entrepreneurial ecosystems, women in tech, computer science education and entrepreneurship globally to name just a few) and notwithstanding an incredibly packed and productive schedule and contact list, still shows an uncommon curiosity and willingness to pay it forward with each new person he bumps into.

Humble, super successful people stand out

So I take notice when I encounter a super successful person who isn’t showing the expected trait of being the center of attention in a dialogue among a small group.

My respect grows as they instead show curiosity in others and demonstrate care and concern for people they don’t know, as well as how they contribute talent towards things not driven by self interest.

Encounters like these also reinforce my not losing sight of humility in what I say and do.

Paying it forward is going to be a theme I hope to keep shining more light on. Not only to help keep me centered, but also my belief that raising awareness of success beyond financial measures is the real story behind entrepreneurs with the most impact.

3 Responses to “Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive”

  1. We all have lessons to learn. I’d add Sam Walton to the list of great leaders who possessed humility. He asked questions to everyone. His store associates: “How can we make this store better? ” New hires: “What made your prior employer great?” His competitors: “How do you do it?” From humility, he got answers. The result: the worlds’ largest corporation. With great blogs like this, who knows. Maybe a humble guy from a little town in UpState NY will make a big difference. The same way that a humble guy from Northwest Arkansas changed the world. Thank you Martin.

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    • While I never met him personally, from all accounts Sam Walton did indeed fit the profile of a Level V leader who coupled genuine personal humility with intense professional will. An inspiring example for sure. Even if our goal isn’t to change the world, sometimes that bit of influence on the person we’re interacting with may have a cascading effect that can change behavior and affect outcomes in ways we may never realize . . .

      Reply
  2. Excellent article! Whereas many people mistakenly distinguish confidence and humility as separate, exclusive concepts, leaders who inspire must be both. Confidence might cause others to believe that you are capable, but humility tells them that there’s room for others in your vision.

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