DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Confident Humility

Written by: on November 21, 2014

Confident Humility

How does a person become “humble”? At what point does one arrive at this state of being? Once one has attained this character trait, can one then lose it? And, do leaders need to exhibit this attribute, or is this one optional? I have wondered about these important questions for years. Humility is a tricky concept, maybe even a slippery one. I have met humble people – at least I thought they were humble. But then they become leaders and something happened. That humility seemed to morph into something quite different. In her interesting and challenging book, Open Leadership, Charlene Li describes “open leaders” as follows, “…having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.”[1] Confidence and humility. Are these both qualities that a leader can possess at the same time? I think we need some definition of terminology at this point.

Merriam-Webster defines humility as “The quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people; the quality or state of being humble.”[2] Webster suggests some synonyms that are helpful: demureness, down-to-earthness, lowliness, meekness, and modesty. It also suggests several antonyms that are even more helpful for understanding: arrogance, bumptiousness, conceit, egotism, haughtiness, huffiness, loftiness, lordliness, pomposity, presumptuousness, pretense, pretentiousness, pridefulness, and superiority. If Webster is correct, I would view humility as a highly desirable trait. If I remember correctly, one of our earlier readings, Good to Great[3] (a secular text), stated that according to their research, humility was the top characteristic for great leaders. So, who would argue with this? Certainly Christians would not. After all, Jesus said of Himself, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, NIV). But this question begs to be asked, “Where have all the humble leaders gone?”

Confidence also needs to be defined. Again, Merriam-Webster to the rescue! Webster defines confidence as follows[4]:

  • A feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something.
  • A feeling or belief that someone or something is good or has the ability to succeed at something.
  • The feeling of being certain that something will happen or that something is true.

Webster then provides some helpful synonyms and antonyms. Synonyms include aplomb, assurance, self-assurance, self-assuredness, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-trust. Antonyms include diffidence, insecurity, self-distrust, and self-doubt. What can we deduce from these terms? An “open leader” is one who believes with certainty that good things will happen. Perhaps a humble faith is what is being referred to here. Humility is not about weakness; it is about strength, confident strength. And, an open leader is not one who sits down waiting for things to happen; rather, this kind of leader makes things happen. Because this person is not insecure, this person is willing to take a risk, to get out of his or her comfort zone, and to try something brand new. This leader is unafraid of change, of breaking out of the status quo, of rocking the boat.

Much of Li’s book is about companies and organizations that jump head first into 21st century technologies to better their organizations’ communication and reputations. There are some pretty wild ideas promoted here, ideas that my grandfather would have never dreamed of. One of the concepts I liked the best in this text was the idea of “sandbox covenants.”[5] Everyone can play in the sandbox, but there are rules that must be heeded by all to play safely together. Why covenants and not contracts? Covenants are more personal than contracts; they are promises that people make to each other. Accountability is a big part of a covenant. Covenants imply mutual accountability and, thus, even leaders are accountable – as accountable as anyone else in the organization – in the sandbox. Leaders are not immune from irresponsible behaviors or false promises. They are in relationship with others, not above them. Good leaders give up control and are open to others, albeit appropriately so. Good leaders understand both structure and improvisation. They realize that life is not an either-or proposition but a both-and endeavor. Nobody is 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time. Leaders are humans; humans are leaders.

So, what picture of leadership is being painted here? The best leaders are those who are humble in spirit but are fiercely dedicated to believing in what they cannot see. And, good leaders are not devastated by criticism because they understand that it is not all about them. Criticism is often just one person’s judgment on another person that utilizes only partial information. It is always easier to judge and condemn than to understand, and it is better to wait patiently and silently than to jump to conclusions prematurely. But this is the human condition in all its un-glory! The ugly way is always the easier way.

This past week included several surprises, not all of them pleasant ones. Early in the week, we were notified that due to budgetary issues, there were about to be some “staffing cuts.” These are always times of great insecurity and fear. It is also a time to watch naysayers “naysay.” My office is across the hall from two of our vice presidents. I could tell that something was going on the past couple of weeks just by watching the countenance of one person in particular. This person is one of the most humble humans I have ever met. And without his saying a word, I could see that something was hurting deep inside his soul. Then the news came; nine-and-a-half positions were to be cut from the budget. The memo came out on Tuesday – so did the rumors and the criticism and the finger pointing and the blaming. When I walked into the all-school meeting on Tuesday afternoon, it was like walking into a memorial service. When the meeting was finished, there was nothing but silence, and sadness. Although no names were mentioned, the departments were named who would be experiencing the cutbacks. The names slipped out on Wednesday. And yes, there was grief, sadness, anger, and tears. But what I also watched this week was the attitude of the school leaders. And what did I discover? Brokenness, sincerely grieving hearts, and genuine concern. Frankly, I was flabbergasted. But I also saw something else. A confident strength that our organization would get through this difficult time was also communicated. Wow! At least from my perspective, I observed something that I have rarely seen in all my years in faith-based higher education. I saw leaders “…having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals” (see footnote 1). And how does that make me feel? Humbly confident. Need I say more?


[1] Charlene Li. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010) 14.

[2] Retrieved from

[3] Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Lead…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001)

[4] Retrieved from

[5] Charlene Li. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010) 105-132.

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

8 responses to “Confident Humility”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Bill, what a fantastic and thoughtful post. From a man of great humility himself, I took your words to heart.

    I found so helpful your focus on humility and confidence. I think many Christian believe that confidence is not a Biblical concept or that our confidence is “self-induced” and therefore should not be a part of our Christian way of thinking. But, your post got me thinking so much about my work with missionaries, as I am finding that there is a high attrition rate among young missionaries that stem from this very issue. One of the key components found in recent research for those who stay long-term on the mission field and adjust well is a deep sense of calling! They know that they have been called by God and the work they are doing is exactly what God intended for them. I think this calling is the greatest source of confidence that one in ministry can find. Coming from God, it not only provides a huge sense of purpose, but it also provides a deep sense of humility — that your value doesn’t come from anyone’s idea of success or your abilities, but from God having given you this privilege to be a messenger. In this respect, confidence is then NOT something we create in ourselves, but our confidence comes from God. That assurance then allows us to be open, vulnerable, able to empathize and lead as Christ did. And if our confidence comes from God, then we are on solid foundation for long-term ministry (as we see in missionaries who have this clear sense of calling!).

    Today we don’t hear much about a calling from God. And confidence is not something I see a lot from our church leaders. Do you think that a lack of calling might be the cause for a lack of confidence and for burnout among so many Christian pastors and leaders today? Let me know what you think! Thanks for your great post this week!

    • John,

      Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you liked the post.

      Your comments about calling are quite interesting. The busier we get and the more we are inundated with information, the more we will step away from prayer and meditation. I know that is true for me. We don’t listen to God in quietness these days. We don’t have to. All the answers are at our fingertips and are available instantly. Waiting on and for God takes too long. We don’t have the patience for that. Nor do we have the ears to hear. We do not like silence — the very place God speaks the most clearly. Somebody once asked, “Are so busy about the king’s business that we do not have time for the king?” I heard that 40 years ago! How much more true is that today? John, I think the primary cause for burnout is when we trust in our own strength rather than in God’s. Oh that we would get back to quiet listening with ears that are ready to hear.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Hey there Professor, this was quite a read – I felt as though you were sitting across from me sharing this story. The disappearance of humble confidence is certainly something we should be concerned about. It’s unfortunate and yet always a joy when we see it on display as you did this past week. The capacity to look beyond ourselves and to work with and through the strengths of others is indeed a difficult task that can only be accomplished through a God-given humility. One of the inherent problems of “open leadership” is the constant influx of opinion on the task of leadership. Humility and Confidence are surely two necessary ways in which to deal with that. How to get people focused on developing that capacity is the greater challenge.

    • Deve, I always look forward to your comments on my posts. Thanks for your kindness.

      You are right, humility is a God-given quality. Can one become humble apart from God? That is an important question.

      Richard Rohr writes that there are three ways to God. The first way is the way of love. We can see God in love since He is love. The second way is the way of prayer. According to Rohr, this is the least common way to find God since so few people pray, at least the kinds of relational/passionate prayers that the mystics prayed. The third way to God, according to Rohr, is the way of suffering. From my point of view, this is also the way to humility — or at least it can be.

      How can a person suffer and not become humble? This is an important question. As I look at other cultures (non-Western cultures), I am often surprised at the humility I see. What is the common denominator? I think it is that most people in the world do not have it easy. There is so much suffering, so much pain, so much brokenness. I wonder if it might be better for the West if we also went through more of this? I don’t wish suffering on anyone, but the fruit of suffering — at least in those people who really pay attention — is worth the pain. What do you think?

      • Deve Persad says:

        I read something recently that relates to the connection of suffering, humility and worship. I think it was in Ravi Zacharias’ new book “Why Suffering?” – he, or the co-author, spoke of how in many parts of the world, where suffering is more prevalent then worship is more vibrant. The premise was, that as people learn, in humility, to trust and praise God, despite suffering, that in times of peace, healing and provision they are able to rejoice in Him all the more. Which is why we find it so hard to reproduce in many of our western contexts – we don’t necessarily possess the same measure of humility, trusting in God in difficult circumstances, because of our own capacity to meet our needs – in essence it robs us of the ability to then worship Him all the more…it’s a sobering challenge indeed….

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    They realize that life is not an either-or proposition but a both-and endeavor. Nobody is 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time. Leaders are humans; humans are leaders.

    Dear Bill, great and refreshing post indeed. In a world driven by the markets, positions and power, its easy to feel the discouragement that comes with the attempt lead forward with the hope of serving and working with leaders and people who posses “confident humility”.
    I love your reminder about leaders ” … who are humble in spirit but are fiercely dedicated to believing in what they cannot see. And, good leaders are not devastated by criticism because they understand that it is not all about them.”
    That is a great point. I think that we anyone take criticism personally, it derails encourage and even “confident humility”.

    Yet you remind us that “criticism is often just one person’s judgment on another person that utilizes only partial information.”

    God have mercy on us!

    Thanks Bill

  4. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Bill, you ask great questions on humility to reflect on. You are so right that some leaders when they take leadership roles they become totally different persons failing to live by their conviction. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone can master humility. It seems to me that humility is a character requires continue learning and developing. I like your reflection on sandbox. Everyone has a part to play and no one is in control. This helps leaders to create a community built on a mutual understanding that we all are humans and can do mistake. Knowing that failure is inevitable helps us as leaders to forgive and develop necessary skills to deal with failure. Thank you.

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    What a gift to hear of mature leadership being exhibited during a time of crisis. I am sad to hear of the difficulty your university and colleagues are experiencing. I am encouraged to hear about the honesty and humility your university administration led forward with in navigating these cuts.
    Even the “all-school” meeting is an excellent example of seeking to lead openly (however well or poorly executed).
    May deep kindness and strength be found and practiced on behalf of others by all in the midst of traversing this time.

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