In his new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Robert Sutton explains, “Wise bosses have the confidence to act on what they know and the humility to doubt their knowledge.”
It’s a myth that leaders clearly see both the future and the path to it. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. I’ll go so far as to say confidence without doubt is usually foolhardy and occasionally dangerous.
I find leading is less about certainty and more about letting go, learning, and courage than you might expect.
Confident-humility is the courage to pull the trigger and set plans in motion even when doubts remain. It lets go of the arrogant illusion that perfection is possible.
Confident-humility opens the mind to learning from mistakes and successes so that the next event or project is better than the previous one.
Confident-humility lets go of current plans in order to make course adjustments. Course adjustment is the norm not the exception for growing organizations.
Special note: course adjustment is about method, process, and procedure. On the other hand, values, mission, and vision remain points of stability in organizations destabilized by constant innovation and improvement.
If leaders “pull the trigger” even when doubts remain, how much certainty is enough?
What advice would you give leaders who struggle with pulling the trigger because they don’t have “enough” certainty?
I love your phrase “It let’s go of the arrogant illusion perfection is possible”. It reminds me of a previous leader who could not make decisions due to his constant need to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong or question that could be asked. Needless to say, such a situation is paralyzing and frustrating for all. Confident-humility is a wonderful leadership trait.
Thanks for your encouragement. The phrase you mention is born out of my own tendency to nickel and dime decisions until there’s nothing left. Changing strategies has changed my world.
Best to you,
Great post. Very succinct and well written.
One thought I might add that – Confident Humility accepts responsibility for pulling the trigger and protects their team from the consequences of failure (to the degree possible).
I’ve worked for some trigger-pullers who blamed their people when the team’s actions accidentally shot some innocent bystanders (to continue the trigger analogy).
It means a lot to receive a good word from someone I admire. Thank you.
Thanks for adding the idea that trigger-pullers shouldn’t shoot people. Nice!
Always a delight seeing you,
Riffing on the trigger analogy and blaming, when I literally or figuratively point a finger at others for a problem, three fingers point back at me. Ouch, caught in the cross-fire!
“…It’s a myth that leaders clearly see both the future and the path to it. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise…”
Thanks for highlighting this oft-missed myth. Leadership is largely a humble undertaking. The less we know, the more God shows up.
…and I wholeheartedly agree with Mike Henry Sr’s comment RE responsibility.
Your words of encouragement and affirmation are much appreciated.
Keep up the good work,
Dan, this (very nice, by the way) post reminded me of another arena in which I am involved – acting. I went to an audition workshop Sunday, and we were asked what scares us most about auditions. I talked about being clueless about what the director wants – I have sent emails prior to auditions saying, “do you view character X as sarcastic or sad?” and the response is usually, “I want to see what YOU do with the character” when I felt (as the auditioner) that surely someone who wrote a script must have something in his/her mind’s eye about what the character should be like.
The workshop leader, who has extensive directing experience replied, “let me tell you a secret – we don’t usually know what we want – we DO want to see how the role plays out in different actors’ hands.” I guess from a business perspective, it’s impossible to “just let things play out however the employee sees it,” but I think this does get back to the fact that the Director a) will know the right thing when they see it (confidence) and b) is keeping an open mind b/c the auditioner may bring something to the role that makes it even better than the director could have ever imagined (humility)!
Let’s all “break a leg” out there in our work worlds!
I feel a sense of improvisation in your comment and agree with the value of seeing how actors or employees work out their roles. After all, thats one key source of innovation.
I know you’ll agree that we don’t innovate the mission. However innovating the path to the objective sounds right on. I suppose the further along the path the less innovation occurs because you start getting things figured out. Reminds me of John Spence’s interest in seeing and repeating patterns.
Always glad to see you,
Paula is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. You’ll regularly see her stopping in to comment. Her bio is at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/paula-kiger
“Perfection is the enemy of Good Enough.”
Today’s post reminds me of my husband. I’ve learned a lot about making decisions even in the face of doubt from my husband, a sergeant in the Guard. A phrase my husband uses frequently in the corporate world, as well as with his men while active is, “A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan next week.” It’s a paraphrase of something Patton was known to have said. But it illustrates a good point.
As a leader, I can get caught between choices that seem equally good or important if I feel I do not have enough information. I’m not comfortable with decisions that require action when information seems (or sometimes feels) inadequate. But that’s often reality and you do your best with what you have because the window of need, or opportunity as it might be, is too short to wait around for you to make up your mind. Not to mention the potential for unintended consequences.
Humility is not debasing yourself. It involves quietly accepting who you are, weaknesses intact. I draw confidence from the knowledge that I’m committed to doing my best – and in the end, my best is the crux of everything, not someone else’s best. Be your best self. That is where strength lies, but it is also not pretentious. Because it doesn’t mean trying to be something you are not.
Love the quote you left, “A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan next week.” I think many board rooms need posters of that saying hanging all around.
It’s always a struggle to figure out how much information is enough. I’m learning to err on the side of action. 🙂
You have my best regards,
Thanks Dan! My husband has another phrase he likes to use too… “Quantity is a quality of it’s own.” 😉
I have encountered Confident- Humility first time and like it. I see Confident and humility two part of same coin, somethimes interconnected, overlapped and perhaps sometimes divided. Confidence seems to be layered with ignorance and arrogance leaving many things unattended and at the same time taking many thing guranteed, Humility seems to be more matured in nature and layered with experience and knowledge, The main difference is exposure and approach. Confidence has one sided and perhaps without experience approach whereas humility has experienced and multidirectional approach. The analogy could be of an educated and knowledgeable person. An educated person seems to be more confident about his subject and belief whereas knowledgeable person is almost sure about the outcome of particular action and decison, Again the difference between the two is experience and depth of information.
Humility is always accompanied by depth of information, knowledge and expected outcome and being only confident is lopsided approach but being confident with humility is almost sure shot apporach that will yield positive outcome,
If leaders pull the trigger, the certainty depends upon the humility and not on confident. More confident and less humility might not produce better result but less confident and more humility may produce better result.
Humility brings more certainty everywhere. Humility comes with experience, knowledge, varied exposure and your value. So, humility decides outcomes and it gives sustainable reputation, character and morality in life.
Great seeing you again.
I particularly like the idea that “Humility brings more certainty everywhere.”
I think we my try to fake confidence. However, humility-understanding our limitations, strengths, etc can produce legitimate “non-arrogant” confidence.
Thanks for sharing your insights,
Ajay is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. You’ll regularly see him stopping in to comment. His bio is at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/ajay-gupta
Excellently written and filled with course-changing wisdom. I think your thoughts — “Confident-humility lets go of current plans in order to make course adjustments. Course adjustment is the norm not the exception for growing organizations.” — could become the major theme of 21st century leadership.
Many companies perform around how they are organized. The ones that can perform in spite of their organizational structure will win the day in this fast changing world of global business! That takes course-changing leadership.
You are hitting a major business challenge by pushing back at organizations that cling to their organizational structure rather than adjust.
Too often we simply exist to feed the organization rather than add value to our customers.
Wonderful and challenging observation.
Kate is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. You’ll regularly see her stopping in to comment. Her bio is at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/kate-nasser
And I thought there was this super secret leadership cadre that had cornered the crystal ball market….
Great hybrid word and all three elements are excellent nuggets of wisdom Dan! Thanks!
What an amazing dynamic place to work where you; attend a meeting, knowing it will lead to specific action and positive change, have a culture where a the foundation is ‘learn, make a mistake, grow, repeat’, and that has a mantra of ‘semper gumby’.
The fourth element of course is a place that consistently celebrates and acknowledges the hard work and the successes (and the failures) which creates a perpetual appreciation process that expands beyond the organization to partners and stakeholders. Celebrate failures and course corrections….hmmm!?
Always good to see you.
Where the heck is the crystal ball market? I want one!! 😉
Celebrate failures. Now there’s an innovation. Reminds me of fail fast and fail cheap. Learn your lessons and move on.
It seems to me if we truly want to innovate we’ve got to honor those who tried and failed.
Thanks for adding value,
Doc is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. You’ll regularly see him stopping in to comment. His bio is at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/doc
Great point added by Mike, accepting responsibility as the leader rather than putting it off on the team encourages the team to continue to bring forth ideas.
In coaching it is very important to ensure that your client understands that you are not all knowing of the future. Many of the sales pages that I run across in coaching give “promises” for participants that can’t hardly be true, unless of course they have a crystal ball.
To achieve success whether in business or life, you must take action and be available to changes or adjustments as proceed down the trail!
Thank you for the post, I’m keeping this one!
I think you are writing about leaders who are confident without letting their egos get in the way.
I agree that leaders cannot be expected to know the goal and also the path to it. They must, of course, have a clear idea of the destination, and be prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to get there, even if it means changing direction along the way.
Being able to venture forth where there is uncertainty is truest test of all leaders. Most importantly to be able change course and admit errors along the way. To walk this world with humility allows one to be able to digest life with an open mind and a clear conscience. After all isn’t that we are seeking in the path to enlightenment. You cannot accept one without the other. But to accept all that is possible allows one to achieve the greatest possible success in whatevery the choose.
A great post and a lot of good comments already. I believe that it was Colin Powell who said that if you wait until you have all the information to make a decision it will be too late. He stated that you need to make decisions with about 75% of the information. I heard that a long time ago – when he was still in the Army, and have tried to keep. I’ve used that as a rule of thumb since then and believe that it’s been great advice. You should be able to substitute 75% confident to answer your question.
Thanks for your comment. Although I’m not sure how to determine if I’ve reached 75%. What I do get from your comment is move forward once the needles clearly tips from doubt to “I believe this works.” Are there challenges yes. However, we can make it.
I’m using your 75% number.
All the best,
“It’s a myth that leaders clearly see both the future and the path to it.”
Strong post, Dan: and – I agree to disagree with you on the above sentence.
Some leaders DO see the future and the path to it clearly – obviously not all leaders, and often not many leaders in pivotal times.
Henry Ford had a singular vision for automobiles while everyone else was still working the mileage on their four footed transportation. It doesn’t mean it was a PERFECT path. It doesn’t mean Henry Ford and his team didn’t have to adjust and readjust the path according to circumstance shift: and just because they had circumstantial adjust doesn’t mean the path wasn’t clear … it just wasn’t ABSOLUTE. The path they originally started on in order to arrive at the automobile probably shifted … that’s life. Arriving at a clearly planned destination is more like piloting a ship than walking a straight ‘perfect’ line. Perfect is mental constipation.
And, confidence is not the same thing as perfection. They’re not even naturally related!
Thanks for your disagreement. I’m sure you already know that, for me, its all about the conversation.
I’m not sure you demonstrated that Ford clearly saw the future. Having said that, I couldn’t agree more that compelling vision fuels successful leaders and vision is seeing.
You have my best regards,
I do know that. Hence, we converse.
I’m not sure you understood that when Ford created a vision for automobiles, there was no such thing in either the past or in the present of his time. In order for him to make automobiles the reality he did, he had to clearly see the future. Read his story.
One of many examples … if one has the eyes to see them.
All the best,
Thanks again for your note.
I think Fords innovation has more to do with the assembly line and a vision to make cars available to the “average” person. I don’t think he saw the automobile. By his time it had already been invented.
Having said that, I’m just shooting from the hip. You may know much more of the story.
We may hear from others on the general topic of what leaders see?
Always a pleasure. You have my best regard,
Seeing the future clearly doesn’t do much if it only changes things for a minute number of people. Many inventions never get beyond the ‘cool invention’ stage.
It’s a whole other ballgame to see an invention’s potential and turn it into reality – ie. take an invention and make it widely commonplace … THAT’S a future seen!
Always a pleasure. Best.
Dan – It’s been a while since I’ve commented, but I think this is a particularly strong post. Well done, and thank you.
Delighted to see you and it’s always great to have a word of encouragement.
Don’t stay away so long…
I enjoyed this post very much. The concept of confident humility, for me, is very much aligned with Self-Value, a topic that for my part, I am quite vocal about. (You may see something of my ideas in that regard in the link below).
Why would I see that connection? With high self-value, one doesn’t “need to be right” or perfect in the eyes of anyone. With high self-value, one is confident in values, mission and vision in a way that doesn’t require defending: it simply is. Contention from others becomes data to consider, but not a threat.
Also, I there is that “quiet wealth” aspect: when one has great self-value, they don’t have to brandish the saber of proof of value by generating masks, political statements, etc. They can spend power frugally and where it will do the most good.
Thanks for bringing focus to this delicate leadership balancing act, and thanks for inviting me over to read and comment!
Self-Value at InpsireMeToday.com
Excellent post, and retweeted. Questions to ask – I haven’t read all the commentary, but here’s what comes to mind for me for leaders who – don’t have “enough” certainty:
What would happen if you did have enough certainty?
Thanks again, –Deb
Important topic as I think that some people feel that they have to be steely strong and not admit weakness or uncertainty.
I created a fun assessment to help people see the difference between authentic confidence and (fear based) swagger. I’d be happy to share it if you’re interested.
Thanks for your writing!