On Humble Confidence


This blog is more of a short story about a leadership lesson I learned.

One summer when I was in college, I came home and took Thermodynamics at a community college. When I had some free time so I helped my mom by taking my grandfather, her dad, on his errands. One day when I picked him up, I had my Thermo textbook on the front seat. He went to get in and put the book on his lap. As I drove, he thumbed through it, then closed the book, looked up and said, “Kelli, I really like you because you are smart but you don’t show it.” Hmmm, was that a compliment? Oh yeah, it was. You see, my grandfather was a machinist who never went to college, but he was naturally smart at math. I know this is where my mom and I got our aptitudes for math. He knew it too.

Then he went on, “When I worked in the shop, I would get plans from the engineers. Sometimes they’d be wrong. You know I could figure it myself, so I knew if those numbers were wrong. I would go back to them, but they didn’t want to hear it from me. I was only a machinist.” I stopped the car at our first errand and my grandfather looked over at me and said, “I am so proud you are studying these books and going to be an engineer. Just never act like those fellas.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was urging me to be competent but not arrogant or too full of pride. He wanted me to act with humble confidence.

Over the years, I have realized that my grandfather gave me some really solid leadership advice. We all know leaders need to be competent and confident. But a leader who is that and also humble, is more human, more approachable and maybe even more respected.

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.  -Thomas Merton

A humble leader listens because they can learn from others and they also own up to their mistakes (unlike those arrogant engineers my grandfather had to deal with).  This is the kind of leader that inspires me. The kind of leader I aspire to be.  And I think my grandfather would approve.


2 thoughts on “On Humble Confidence

  1. Your ideas are so captivating and far reaching with global proportions. We all learn to be pride and forget that the true pride comes with humility. The humility is a jewel of knowledge and wisdom that accompanies very few leaders. Unfortunately, a lot of cultures don’t enforce humility. I have been into the research since last ten plus years. I have found a lot of professors who are very arrogant which has been a discouraging factor for the new researchers in the field. This has compelled me to initiate a new online research model that can work without senior engineer and research supervisor.
    I call it MOOR model of research. The emerging technologies have reached at a stage where we don’t need any arrogant engineers, professors as the online, web based and technology enforced models would nullify these arrogant individuals at work places.
    The modern machine would be really humble and cooperative as can be seen with the PC, mobile phones, smart phones and other emerging technologies.


  2. Thank you Kelli for this post. The most inspiring leadership I have experienced in my life carry these same attributes as your dad. It takes a true leader to practice humility. It demonstrates confidence and self- knowledge. Humility means accepting we are not perfect, we can make mistakes and we can learn from each other. In some cases, this may be the difference between a safe design or not; and this has a societal cost we may not be willing to bear. ie. loss of life.

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