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An Exercise in Humility: Talk with Your Mouth Closed


Last Friday, I had the chance to sit down with several successful entrepreneurs over lunch.  (Successful in this case being "happy" about their previous startups' outcomes either sold or otherwise while under their leadership.)  Over the lunch, I remember introducing some of the entrepreneurs to each other, but after that, I feel as if I might have spoke too much.  You ever get that feeling that you were a bit of a chatter box?

That evening before bed, I felt a bit guilty about it, and as I often do, reflected on my day's events -- what happened, what did I like, what didn't I like, and what could I have done better.  I realize now that I've come to this point where a cocktail of confidence, passion, and experiential exuberance mixed too strong can be interpreted as arrogance and rigidity.  The experiential exuberance, in this case represents, is the energy I have from lessons learned through building a startup and other "wise" events through life.  No one actually said I was arrogant, but I felt that I could have been interpreted that way -- if that's my own feeling, then perhaps that's how it was perceived.

While brainstorming stopgates for the future, I read a fitting article on LinkedIn -- "Finding Strength in Humility" by Tony Schwartz from the NY Times' Dealbook.  As you can imagine, the article talked about the importance of exercising humility as a leader.  Too often, leaders exude the "positives" of strength, courage and decisiveness without the balancing act of tempering those qualities from being excessive.  Some thoughts melding the article, my past, and what happened for the future:
  • Too much of a good thing (like confidence, tenacity) can be a bad thing.  Exercise patience and know it's okay to let others not only speak, but to share their thoughts and actually listen.
  • It's okay to say, "I don't know -- I'll get back to you on that."  No, seriously, get back to someone on that.  I was recently on a call for one of my consulting projects, and I was asked a question to which I spent a minute on the call fumbling through documents on my end to figure it out.  I should've just told the client I'd get back to them.
  • You have two ears and one mouth.  Heard this saying before?  If you've surrounded yourself with people smarter than you, you should do well to sit and listen to what they have to say.
  • Do speak up, and pass the baton.  Obviously, sitting in a group means so little if you don't say anything at all.  You still want to leave an impression, after all.  Instead, just be sure to speak up, and pass the baton for others to talk.
  • Introduce others.  If you're introducing new people, make sure they get a chance to converse with one another.  Networking is more about how you connect others and less about how you connect with others.
  • Read the faces.  As you talk to people in the group, be sure to gauge everyone's facial expressions.  You may find others who are wanting to chime in, but may feel uncomfortable to do so.  Similar to the above points, try to ease those people into the conversation.  They'll feel thrilled that you'd help them in, and you'll feel great for getting them in.
It's clear to me that I still have a ways to go to be an inspiring and effective leader.  Not just in groups, but I should start exercising humility even when I'm alone.  Confidence can be a tricky thing, but as an entrepreneur, especially, I feel there is a more careful balancing act of being confident in your startup and your capabilities and knowing that there are still ways to better your product, your skills.  Genuineness through humility can go a long way to not only communicating and inspiring others to follow your vision, but to buy your product, or simply have a friendly lunch.

At the end of the day, it's being able to call on all these different tools you gather through your journeys to more effectively communicate to the audience in front of you.

How have you negotiated the trapeze of confidence vs. over-confidence in communicating with others?  What are some other tips when in groups of people that I didn't include?

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