Aug 28, 2013 | Leadership

Despite being hailed for its sunny weather, a black cloud has loomed over San Diego for much of the summer of 2013. That cloud took the form of allegations against its soon-to-be former mayor, Bob Filner

San Diego’s headlines are part of the steady drumbeat against leaders for abuse of power.  Though it will be months before attorneys sort through the deluge of claims, now is an ideal time for all leaders to pause and reflect on this paradox:  How do I balance confidence with humility?

Confidence allows you to chart your own course, whatever others say. It helps you to stop analyzing the data and start making the tough calls.  However, unbridled confidence leads to arrogance, and arrogance leads to downfall.  Arrogant leaders are unable to assess the risk of their actions.  They act as if they are above consequences, even the law.

To protect against arrogance, you must balance confidence with humility.  The word humility suggests modesty and lack of pretense, but that doesn’t mean humble leaders are weak. In the anthology, The Character-Based Leader, author Dan Rockwell writes, “Humility lets a leader acknowledge the possibility that he or she is wrong, listen to and take seriously those who disagree, and, by doing so, avoid needless mistakes.”  He draws these contrasts between humility and arrogance:

  1. Arrogance knows; humility learns.
  2. Arrogance talks; humility listens.
  3. Arrogance builds walls; humility opens hearts.
  4. Arrogance stands aloof; humility joins.
  5. Arrogant leaders disconnect; humble leaders connect.

Here are three questions you should ask yourself regularly to keep your confidence in check:

What good can I do with my power?  Management expert Peter Drucker said, “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” That responsibility requires you to both strategize and execute. As a strategist, you define the direction of the organization. To execute, you engage and equip the organization to achieve the vision. Neither role requires domination or control. What is required is your ability to influence others to achieve organizational goals.

What harm can I cause with my power?  During the financial crisis, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld refused to recognize that the company was undercapitalized.  This blatant denial by Fuld and many of his peers led to catastrophic consequences for the entire financial system. Driving so hard for unmitigated growth can leave you incapable of assessing risk. You could be tempted to distort the facts. If unchecked, this can cause your entire organization to lose touch with reality.

What can I do to stay humble?  In her book, Team of Rivals, author Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln brilliantly assembled a cabinet from his political opponents to preserve the Union and win the Civil War. Surround yourself with smart people and encourage them to challenge your ideas. Relying on the same people for advice can lead to group think and rubber stamp leadership. Neither you nor your organization will benefit.

You need confidence as a leader. Yet, overconfidence can lead to arrogance. Humility is a non-negotiable leadership quality that protects against arrogance.  Maintain your balance as a leader by asking yourself how you are using power and what you are doing to stay humble.

Question: How do you keep yourself honest about how you wield power?

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