The Line Between Humility, Ability, and Self-Confidence in Leadership

Are you really as good of a leader as you think you are? This article shares data and insights on this topic


Garrett Mintz , Mon 5 October 2020
My company has been helping executives learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and there was one number that really stood out to me when I was checking out the data. Seven out of every ten executives in an Executive Mentor Program gave worse ratings to their own leadership ability than the ratings given by their colleagues on leadership as part of their 360-degree assessments.

This statistic fascinates me because it forces me to start questioning what these executives are seeing in themselves that their colleagues apparently miss.   

Is it an act of humility to acknowledge that there is room to grow even though one’s colleagues are satisfied with their leadership?

Is it a perceived lack of ability compared to other leaders they aspire to emulate (something which apparently is missed by their colleagues)?

Or is it a lack of self-confidence, and that more executives feel like they are “faking it” until the one day that they are actually “making it” (while their colleagues don’t know any better)?

To properly answer this, leadership should be defined. By leadership, the study focused on two areas: general perceptions of leadership (e.g. I feel this person is a good leader) and one’s ability to provide clear expectations for those that work with them.

As a society, we seemingly look to the most prominent business leaders as if they have it all together, brimming with confidence, and are unshakable.

We condition ourselves to believe that to be a leader, we must be ever confident and we must have all the answers. For some people, this is an attractive endeavor because our vision of ourselves is the person at the top making the decisions and having the answers – that almost by being at the top of an org chart that we will inherently have the answers (or an alternative solution) because we have control. For others, however, leadership is not an attractive endeavor because of the perceived responsibilities and eyeballs looking to you for what the next step should be; be open to criticism and all the while constantly nervous about whether or not you are choosing the correct path.

While we aren’t sure exactly why 70% of executives underestimate their leadership ability compared to their colleagues’ ratings, we do know that this mismatch in perception exists.

Therefore, there is good news and bad news implied by these findings. The bad news: for those people who are attracted to leadership because they believe that once they are a leader they will have the answers and the confidence; that seems to be an unlikely, though not unheard-of, outcome. Instead, this seems to show that leadership is a never-ending pursuit of improvement. This becomes exacerbated when team members and the people they work with don’t understand their expectations of themselves and the metrics they would like to achieve to be considered a success.

The good news: for those people that avoid leadership because of the perceived responsibility of knowing every next step, being criticized, and nervous about whether or not they are choosing the correct path; most leaders feel this way and the feeling doesn’t stop! Instead, it seems like they just get better at dealing with those feelings.

The reason this is good news is because it shouldn’t hold you back from pursuing opportunities to improve your leadership abilities. This feeling of nervousness when leading a group of people is normal (the data shows it!) and it probably won’t be going away anytime soon. If you lean into the opportunities that present themselves (or seek them out), you can ensure that you are constantly growing and learning.

Speaking of leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg’s story of joining Google embodies the lessons learned from somebody jumping into leadership despite the uncertainty.

Sheryl accepted a role at Google during Google’s infancy. Her prior work experience was in government and she had minimal experience working in technology or startups.

It had taken her almost a year of living in San Francisco to get her first job offer. But persistence paid off and eventually she was receiving multiple offers, one of which was with Google. The other offers were very similar with what she had done in the past and paid her more, but the opportunity for leadership and growth with those other companies wasn’t nearly as high as with Google.

She was torn about what to do. As she was about to reject the Google offer, she met with Eric Schmidt the then CEO of Google who was still part of the interview process (which also gives you an idea of how early this was with Google). She laid out all the offers she had on her spreadsheet and the pros and cons of each offer. The only substantial positive for Google compared to the other offers was the opportunity for growth and leadership.

So why did she choose Google?

It was Eric’s response that convinced her. Eric put his hand over her spreadsheet and said “Don’t be stupid. If somebody offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask ‘which seat?’ you just get on.”

She accepted this new challenge of working in a different industry than she was accustomed to, learned to thrive in it, and transitioned that experience into what she is doing now: the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

If you are currently a leader, this executive data should hopefully be the inspiration to pursue new experiences and expand your horizons with the hope that it improves your leadership abilities. You don’t need to follow what you think is a “tried and true” method to leadership because there is no “tried and true” method to leadership. Leadership is constantly evolving and 70% of executives feel they are worse leaders compared to their colleagues’ perception of them. 

This is not a guarantee that trying new activities will have some magical power that directly improves your leadership. You might not even realize your strengths and growth as a leader until much later. But, doing nothing new and avoiding challenges is a sure-fire way to stagnate. 


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