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May 2024
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The Secret to Confidently Humble Leadership

Learn to balance a strong skill set with the ability to admit what you don’t know.

By Maureen Zappala, DTM

When Laila, a successful and confident entrepreneur, joined Toastmasters, she began doubting her abilities. Some meeting roles were easy, but some intimidated her. She struggled to adapt, and her confidence waned. When asked to become a club officer, she turned it down because she questioned if she had what it took to make a difference beyond her business world.

John, another successful entrepreneur, was used to being in control and making things happen. As a Toastmaster, he frequently took on leadership roles, even when he wasn’t sure what to do. However, because he was unwilling to admit what he didn’t know, he became overly bossy and controlling, refusing to delegate or ask for help.

Great leaders find a balance between being confident and humble. At first, these can seem like opposing qualities. Confidence is associated with assertiveness and self-assuredness. Humility is associated with modesty and deference. Yet these two qualities actually complement each other. Confidence helps you make decisions and lead with conviction. Humility keeps you open to feedback and receptive to new ideas; it helps you connect with your team on a deeper level.

Excessive confidence—John’s flaw—can be seen as a lack of humility and may lead to an inflated sense of self-importance or disregard for others’ perspectives. On the other hand, a lack of confidence—which hinders Laila—may be reflected in an unwillingness to take risks and pursue goals.

Great leaders find a balance between being confident and humble.

Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” New Zealand author and painter Peter McIntyre wrote, “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.” How do you find this balance between confidence and humility? The key is self-awareness. By being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you can lead with confidence in areas where you excel and remain humble enough to seek help and guidance in areas where you may struggle.

In this episode of The Toastmasters Podcast, the hosts speak with Dr. Valerie Young, co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute.

Toastmasters Builds Self-Confidence

The Toastmasters program is designed to help members develop the self-awareness needed to become confident and humble leaders. Confidence increases with every speech. Humility is developed with every evaluation. Members self-reflect to identify areas for improvement, set goals, and track progress. Skills assessment and frequent feedback help members better understand their own leadership styles and communication preferences. This can all then be leveraged to build stronger relationships with their teams and to make better decisions.

In a perfect Toastmasters world, members like Laila and John should flourish and grow. But doubt keeps Laila from stepping into leadership, and arrogance keeps John from facing his lack of skills. One lacks confidence, and one lacks humility.

Derailed by Doubts

In his book Think Again, author Adam Grant describes what he calls “confident humility.” It’s having “faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. That gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights.”

Not all doubt is bad. Sometimes doubt leads to healthy questioning of one’s assumptions and beliefs, resulting in personal growth and intellectual curiosity. The critical thinking that encourages people to seek out information and consider alternative viewpoints is good. In contrast, some doubts are more like destructive skepticism, shaking your confidence and affecting decision-making abilities. Those doubts can lead to overcompensating behavior and stalled personal growth.

Four female coworkers gathered around laptop smiling

Impostor Syndrome and Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is a key element of impostor syndrome: the chronic inability to internalize success despite overwhelming evidence of that success. Competent, qualified people think they’re not as smart or capable as others think they are, and they feel that at any minute they’ll be uncovered as a fraud. Impostor syndrome screams the loudest in times of change, such as earning a promotion or tackling a new project.

It’s no surprise that many Toastmasters can experience this self-doubt. People join from all different backgrounds and career paths. Stepping into a new Toastmasters role can trigger self-doubt because the tasks are so different from normal life. Other than club meetings, how often do you time something? Or evaluate someone? Or create a speech from scratch? Those first few times doing it are nerve-wracking, and doubt can lead well-qualified people to feel like an impostor, not as qualified as they think they should be.

By being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you can lead with confidence in areas where you excel and remain humble enough to seek help and guidance in areas where you may struggle.

Valerie Young, co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute, defines a “humble realist” as someone who has an accurate understanding of their own abilities and limitations and who is able to acknowledge their accomplishments and accept their mistakes without letting either define their sense of self-worth. Humble realists are not defined by external validation or achievement, but rather by a sense of purpose and inner confidence.

In Young’s “Rethinking Impostor Syndrome” program, she teaches people to “keep going regardless.” Don’t wait until you feel confident, because emotions are the last to change. Actions come first. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions, change your inner dialogue from self-doubt to self-assurance, then move forward. Accurately assess your skills, recognize your shortfalls, be open to asking for help, and keep going regardless.

In contrast, the popular, but misguided suggestion to “fake it till you make it” implies if you act as if you are successful, you will become successful. However, this amplifies feeling like an impostor because now you really are one. It’s dishonest and can lead to mistakes, as well as a lack of respect or trust. This thinking also hinders personal growth because more energy is spent on the façade of competence instead of actually gaining competence.

The difference between the “fake it till you make it” and Young’s “keep going regardless” is where you place your confidence. There’s a difference between having confidence in your tools/skills versus confidence in your capabilities/capacity. It’s normal to not be confident in a skill you don’t have. But your capacity to learn it could give you the confidence to do what it takes to perfect it. In fact, far too often, we undervalue the character traits like resilience, optimism, congeniality, and curiosity that have contributed to our successes. “Keep going regardless” means using these traits to propel you through a learning curve until your tactical skills catch up.

Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, has said, “You have to ask the questions you need to ask, admit without apology what you don’t understand, and do the work to learn what you need to learn as quickly as you can. … True authority and true leadership come from knowing who you are and not pretending to be anything else.”

Listen to an exclusive podcast interview with Kevin Cokley, Ph.D., and the hosts of The Toastmasters Podcast as they take a deeper dive into impostor syndrome.

How To Be More Self-Aware

It’s tempting for a leader to assume they need to be the expert at everyone’s job in order to lead. But that can lead to micromanaging, team apathy or resentment, and generally poor results. Strive for better. Whether you call it confident humility or humble realism, it’s wise to explore where the balance is between confidence and humility. Becoming more self-aware will give you confidence in your capacity while admitting the gaps in your knowledge, making you a much more effective, resilient, and collaborative leader. To become more self-aware:

  • Recognize your strengths and weaknesses; become more open to seeking help when you need it.
  • Incorporate daily journaling or meditation to help develop a habit of reflecting on your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
  • Ask others for honest feedback about your performance; use it as an opportunity for growth.
  • Prioritize learning. Commit to learning something new every day. Read books, attend workshops or training sessions, and find mentors. Expanding your knowledge will increase your confidence.
  • Learn to delegate tasks to those better suited to handling them, freeing up your time and energy.

The “D” Word

Delegation is hard for some leaders. But refusing to delegate because you don’t trust your team or fear not being in control will hurt your team and your leadership. Delegation is a skill as much as it is a mindset, but it’s a skill that can be learned. Understanding how to assess a task’s importance and urgency, identifying resource availability, and knowing your personal capacity will help you decide if you tackle the task yourself or delegate it out.

It’s normal to not be confident in a skill you don’t have. But your capacity to learn it could give you the confidence to do what it takes to perfect it.

Ask yourself, Does this task line up with our organization’s (or your personal) goals? If not, put it at the bottom of your to-do list. If it does, determine who should take on the task by asking more questions:

  • Do I have the skills, time, and desire to do this?
  • Do I enjoy it?
  • Can someone else do it better, faster, cheaper?
  • Will delegating this free me up to do other important work?
  • Does it provide a learning or growth opportunity for someone on the team?
Two women sitting at laptop working and smiling

Shouldn’t the Leader Know Everything?

It may be tempting for a leader to assume they need to be the expert in everything, another reason they may not delegate. They may resist simply saying “I don’t know” for fear it makes them look weak. That is not only unrealistic, but exhausting. The pressure to know all and do all will lead to burnout.

The solution is to indicate a willingness to learn or get help after revealing you don’t know. Try these alternative responses:

  1. “I don’t have all the answers on this topic, but I can learn more and let you know.”
  2. “That’s a great question! I’m not sure, so let me do some research and get back to you.”
  3. “I’m not an expert on this subject, but I know someone on my team who is. Let me connect you with them.”

Not only are these powerful phrases, but they will give your team more confidence in your leadership, and more willingness to participate in reaching goals.

Striking a balance between confidence and humility is important to ensure cooperation, respect, and loyalty from your team. A confident leader inspires peak performance. A fearful, controlling leader hampers it. A humble leader creates a sense of safety, trust, and curiosity in the team. A leader who constantly defers to others or fails to provide direction can cause confusion, disengagement, and lack of focus.

If John had been humble enough to admit his skill gap and ask for feedback and help, he would have done wonders to solidify a strong and dedicated club. If Laila had more confidence in her ability to take on the leadership of her club, based on her past success as a business leader, she would have found another avenue of influence and camaraderie.

Strive to be the leader who has found the perfect middle ground, where confidence and humility work together and complement each other well.


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