Confidence and humility are qualities that are often valued and rewarded in professional settings. Leaders are commended for exhibiting them, while professionals aspiring to leadership positions look to develop them.
However, for many marginalized groups, these same characteristics may be perceived quite differently. It is this dichotomy in the perception of what it means to be “confident” and what it means to be “humble” that makes it challenging for professionals of color (and especially leaders of color) to exhibit both, simultaneously.
Viewing this through the lens and experience of women of color in the workforce, confidence is seldom encouraged. A confident woman of color may be perceived as arrogant or haughty. On the other hand, humbling oneself often feels like continuing to allow subjugation by a system that requires confidence in order to succeed.
When it comes to humility, for women of color, it can be a hinderance that is tenfold. Not only are women of color sometimes discouraged from advocating for themselves, prioritizing themselves, taking pride in their work, building a personal brand for a competitive edge, or networking strategically—oftentimes, they’re not even given the opportunity. A recent Forbes article identified five ways that humility can be damaging to women.
A juxtaposition of confidence and humility
If you take a look at the definition of confident and compare it with humble, they’re almost complete opposites. Being confident is to be self-assured, while humble is more aligned with timidity and submissiveness. So how can someone be opposites at the same time?
Consider viewing both characteristics through the lens of leadership. Here are six ways leaders can demonstrate humility:
- Acknowledge limitations and strengths
- Appreciate the contributions of others without letting ego get in the way
- Maintain an open mind and a desire to continuously learn from others
- Seek diverse feedback often
- Apologize when in the wrong
- Avoid being defensive, aggressive, or domineering
And in a recent Medium article, author Anthony Boyd identifies these seven ways leaders can demonstrate confidence:
- Take risks and learn from mistakes
- Turn negative energy into positive outcomes
- Don’t second guess yourself, and take decisive action that leads to results
- Admit that you don’t know everything
- Ask questions rather than make assumptions
- Believe you have what it takes to make an impact
- Remain calm under pressure
In comparing both lists, confidence and humility seem a lot more similar than we may have initially thought. So why is it such a challenge for people of color, especially women of color, to find those throughlines?
As a woman of color, there is always a sort of hypervigilance. We feel as if we have to watch what we do and what we say because people are watching us, lying in wait for us to make a mistake. This has been the lived experience for so many of us, especially in predominantly white spaces. And since we’re not allowed to make mistakes, we certainly can’t take the risks that may lead to one. If we acknowledge that we have limitations, then we may inadvertently prove the perception that we are not good enough. There is this saying that we as people of color have to be “twice as good.” Hearing this type of message from a young age, combined with experiences of racism and discrimination leads many of us to feel that there is no room for a perceived weakness (like humility).
Finding a balance
So how do we find a balance between the two? How can women of color be confident and humble?
Mariah Lichtenstern, founding partner of DiverseCity Ventures and Aspen Tech Policy Hub Fellow, offers a unique perspective. She says that we should not consider humility as the a quality we should look for, but rather empathy as a characteristic necessary to be an impactful leader. She writes, “Rather than humility, I believe we should promote empathy—among and between peer groups. With empathy, one can express respect and admiration (if merited) without abasing one’s self. With empathy, one is more likely to abstain from insensitive behavior. With empathy, one can be confident in communicating authentically while exercising such restraint. In instances of adversarial or opposing views, how much better would the world be if we practiced mutual empathy instead of putting on airs of feigned respect or humility?”
For me, balance is focusing on what each of these characteristics mean and how they show up in my personal and professional interactions. As leaders in our respective fields, I encourage us to strive to attain whatever characteristics are necessary to build and encourage the growth of others and create equitable and inclusive spaces and opportunities. Here are a few suggestions:
- Support one another. As women of color it's important for us to support each other in creating spaces where we can thrive. In chapter 10 of my book, “Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color” titled Making Connections and Creating Safe Spaces I write, “As women who face similar challenges, we should be able to be more empathetic with one another and create spaces where we can share our common goals and work together to find solutions to get through our challenges."
- Be present. It can be a challenge to be fully present when you feel like you are constantly in a battle, but showing up fully and wholly in every environment and situation plays a role in creating the outcomes you desire. I recommend reading Amy Cuddy’s “Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges.” This book has helped me discover how to be present for myself and others.
- Set boundaries. In chapter one of her book, “ Set Boundaries, Find Peace,” Nedra Tawwab defines boundaries as a gateway for healthy relationships. In the social impact space, our work is all about relationships, but so is life in general. When you set the right boundaries, you can find peace. And with peace comes balance.
At the end of the day, balance is determined by what works for the individual. When you find yourself in an internal battle between how confident or humble you should be, remember: it doesn't have to be more of one than the other. It is about making an impact and the characteristics needed to do so successfully. And if you just can't seem to figure it out, choose empathy.
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Dr. Waajida L. Small is a human resources executive who has worked in the public and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She is a certified leadership and executive coach, human capital strategist and certified purpose leader. Dr. Small is the author of "Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color", a book for women of color on the rise into positions of leadership and influence in their organizations, industries and communities.