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Friday Focus: Practicing Confident Humility

James Warren November 04, 2014
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In today’s Focus, I want to pick up on a concept that emerged in last week’s article. I talked about embracing and showing one’s strengths by being authentic about one’s weaknesses. The act of doing this relates to something I call Confident Humility.

Confidence is a trait we often ascribe to our leaders. Whether they project it consciously or not, there is something clearly comforting about leaders who seem to be in complete control in the midst of uncertainty. Their belief in their own abilities to navigate the unknown makes us say, “They seem to know the way, let’s follow them.” In short, their strengths are on full display.

At the same time, when we see leaders who are otherwise very capable and accomplished admit their shortcomings, acknowledge their limits, and say, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know what to do,” it also has a positive impact on the team. It shows them that their leader is not perfect – and that he knows it.

Letting your team know that you know you’re not perfect does wonders for the team’s morale, engagement and dialogue level. If you have all the answers, why should your team bother with any of the thinking? By being transparent about the fact that you don’t know everything, your team more often than not steps up. The collective wisdom outweighs individual expertise and good things happen. This is hard to do without a leader who practices humility.

One of the toughest jobs I had was a developmental assignment, in which I went from being a brand manager who had spent several years launching new products and leading established brands to being a district manager in the sales force. I had never worked in sales (formally) before this position. My team had been led to believe that I was “all that and a bag of chips” and would be an amazing leader for the organization. And the reality of those first few weeks and months felt like anything but amazing leadership.

I found myself striving to live up to that reputation and image that had preceded me. I became blind to the fact that I didn’t know anything about running a sales organization and I made some ignorant and ineffective decisions, because I thought I needed to look like I was in control. And when reality smacked me in the face in the form of blunt feedback, I felt like a failure. I remember waking up one day and telling myself that I really needed to go back to marketing because sales was not for me. This self-pity only blinded me further, obscuring the fact that I had plenty of strengths I simply wasn’t using or leveraging. I was trying so hard to be the perfect district manager (impossible), that I wasn’t being the great leader I was capable of being. This was when confident humility started to become real to me.

The awakening was completed a couple of weeks after I got that feedback and began to reflect on it. At lunch in the middle of a training day with one of my employees, our conversation took a turn towards how our brands were being executed at retail. That kicked off a wide-ranging conversation where I explained some of the positioning behind the brands (ours and the competition), offered a rationale for the promotions being run, and gave some perspective on how these brands were supported based on their financial objectives. This was stuff I knew quite well from my brand management experience. My employee sat back and looked at me, with a satisfied look on her face. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about, James!” she exclaimed. “That’s what we’re looking for from you!”

It was a humbling and enlightening experience. All my team really needed was for me to lead with my strengths (project confidence in what I knew), while acknowledging what they all already understood: I didn’t know much about sales processes, systems and tactics. If I were willing to let them teach me what I didn’t know, while sharing my expertise with them, why, it might turn into a beautiful experience after all, for them and for me.

And that’s exactly what happened. I admitted where I was weak, and asked for help. This simple act empowered them to take on new leadership challenges to fill the void caused by my lack of subject matter expertise. And I also started putting my best foot forward, leading with brand insights and strategy in virtually every interaction, because that’s what I brought to the table, and that’s what I was good at. Once I “got my mind right,” the team was off and running. Morale started to improve, engagement and dialogue increased and results began to impress.

You see, this was a 50/50 job. And these jobs are awesome for shaping confident humility. What’s a 50/50 job? It’s when 50% of the job can be easily accomplished by leveraging what you already know, and 50% of the job requires you to do things you have zero experience in. What you know – that’s where the confidence comes from. What you are completely inexperienced in – that’s where the humility comes from. Because you are in learning mode, and learning means making mistakes and sometimes failing. And that is humbling. My mistake was not realizing sooner that it was a 50/50 job. I was looking at all of my failings in the role, and not realizing any of my strengths.
If you want to become a leader known for confident humility, I have two words for you: get uncomfortable.   Deliberately put yourself in situations where you have to learn new things.  Stretch yourself. If your job is stale, freshen it up.  Ask for (or create) new challenges and tackle the unknown.

That’s my challenge to you. Be a leader who is confident and humble at the same time, aware of your terrific strengths and transparent about what you don’t know and what you’re learning. Then sit back and watch your team’s growth and performance reach new levels as they step up to lead. And get ready for them to embrace you as their very strong and slightly imperfect leader!

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