Confident Humility in Leading Change

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5aa5c142 b2e0 47cf bf72 7eef5206f5f9 1781458 28029 gfqg3jym3k79In the past three weeks, we have talked about leadership postures that increase the likelihood that change will go well. We have talked about change identification and building change capacity in the past two months. This week, we look at the third posture, leaning in to the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership.

Successfully leading through change requires simultaneous confidence and humility. Both confidence and humility ground us in our own vocation while complex, and often chaotic, situations develop through the change process. We take humility as our baseline in all situations, remembering that:


  • We didn't get here on our own.
  • We know we have blind spots.
  • We have more to learn.
  • We can learn from our critics and enemies.
  • This too shall pass.
  • We are but dust.

This kind of humility challenges the protective and defensive behaviors our training as leaders has often conferred on us. Our training tells us that leaders command confidently, often blustering our way into whatever is next. More often than not we lead by:

  • Telling instead of asking.
  • Knowing instead of discovering.
  • Deciding instead of inviting input.
  • Doing for instead of doing with.
  • Asking "how can I help" instead of asking "who is the right person for this?

In change situations, and adaptive change especially, instead of starting with "I know how to get us out of this", a leader has to start with "I don't know." That is because the most significant change operates outside of a leader's direct control:

  • The problem may have clear symptoms, but the problem itself may be veiled and/or unclear.
  • The main place where work happens to affect the change is in the stakeholders, not in the leader or those directly under the leader's command. Leaders can command changes in some behaviors, but not changes in mindsets and the habits that express those mindsets.
  • The solution itself is unclear because the problem is unclear.
  • Both the problem and the solution require the leader and other stakeholders to learn alongside each other as the change progresses.

Each of these things challenge the way our training led us:

  • Telling instead of asking: we miss critical information.
  • Knowing instead of discovering: we stay solely in expertise, in a process where expertise is not enough.
  • Deciding instead of inviting input: we reduce or eliminate buy-in, our ability to broaden knowledge, and operational alignment.
  • Doing for instead of doing with: we isolate ourselves more than necessary by reinforcing power and dependency rather than interdependence and collaboration.
  • Asking "how can I help" instead of asking "who is the right person for this? We assume we are the solution, and remain focused on our own expertise instead of what the organization needs. This means we often produce the wrong results or pull things toward what we need, not what they need.

Humility, then, grounds our leadership vocation and helps us reduce our protective and defensive behaviors by taking the power out of our fear:

  • Asking means we don't have to be afraid of answers.
  • Discovering means we don't have to be afraid of our lack of knowledge.
  • Inviting input means we don't have to be afraid of criticism or challenge.
  • Doing with means we don't have to be afraid of the loss of power: we intentionally give it away.
  • Asking "who is the right person" means we don't have to be afraid of being useless: we stay rooted in our vocation.

This allows us to approach change with confidence in our humility. Sometimes, we mistake perpetual self-doubt and lack of confidence for humility. To the contrary: humility increases self-knowledge. Humility knows that we have blind spots, hidden places, and things we do not know. But it also is honest about what we do know, while being open to challenging even that.

So confident humility becomes the posture of an adaptive leader willing to lean in to the vulnerabilities of such leadership. Taking off all the posturing, reducing the fear, and opening ourselves (with Brené Brown's "strong back, soft front"), allow us to be confident in our humility.

As leaders living in confident humility we can:

  • Establish trust, now that we are more ready to show our true selves to one another.
  • We can empower learning, because we are no longer focused on blaming and punishing.
  • We build a culture of grace that allows for failures - and the structure that allows us to learn from them and grow instead of repeating them endlessly.
  • Empower others to make decisions, giving them the tools they need to take charge of their area of responsibility and experience the satisfaction of success.

How have you seen this in your leadership? In your organization? What would you add to what is here? What would you challenge? What resonates? What misses entirely?

Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]