Getting Ahead without Tooting Your Own Horn

By Ray Blunt

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"Therefore is it most expedient for the wise… to be the trumpet of his own virtues..."
              --Benedick to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare


The verbal banter of Benedick and Beatrice aside, few people would want to be known as self-promoters. Wise? Hardly. Or is it?

We all know people who get ahead because they are gifted artists at the practice of getting the boss’ recognition—even if others have done most of the work. So do we swallow our sensibilities and start taking trumpet lessons or do we stick to what we say we believe and let the chips fall where they may? Is personal humility simply a recipe for mediocrity—at least in terms of the world’s recognition—or is it a form of integrity that will be recognized eventually? It is a difficult dilemma for many aspiring leaders, particularly in organizations where recognition is sorely lacking.



In a leadership seminar not too long ago, we discussed the importance of building a legacy in the lives of others rather than building monuments to ourselves. We all agreed that it is more important for leaders to focus on the development of those behind them instead of self-promotion. We were reflecting on the Shelley poem “Ozymandius” as a metaphor for our generation. Listen.


I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


There was a great deal of agreement around the room that the self promoters are people who don’t build trust or loyalty or leave anything but an empty, self-authored legacy. Lots of heads were nodding.

At that point someone asked rather plaintively, “But if I don’t blow my own horn, how will anyone know what I’ve done? I’ll never get ahead.” This comment prompted a shift in the discussion, with various participants asserting that all this talk of humility and legacy doesn’t fit reality.

It’s become somewhat of a truism that if you don’t call attention somehow to your own achievements, no one else will. But the rules of logic would say that’s simply an assertion. Let’s look at the facts.


To Be Level 5 or Not to Be

Probably the most compelling work I have seen on the subject of self-promotion vs. humility is the discussion of Level 5 leadership in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Collins’ goal was to identify why some companies can make the transition from being just pretty good to being truly great performers. His method was to turn two dozen graduate students loose on the research question and then let them build a mountain of data that gradually, in a seminar format, they began to distil into wisdom under Jim Collins’ guidance. For almost five years they analyzed, discussed, and debated before reaching their conclusions. They found that one of the essential factors in the leap from “good to great” was a form of leadership based on humility and a focus on the organization which Collins and his team dubbed “Level 5 leadership.” Look at a brief synopsis of the findings in a comparison between the two “successful” types, with Level 5 being clearly superior to Level 4 in overall results:


Level 5

  • Builds enduring greatness
  • Personal humility—does not seek the light
  • Ambition for the purpose of the institution
  • Sets the successors up for success
  • Looks out the window—credits others for success
  • Looks in the mirror—assigns responsibility for failure

Level 4

  • Builds commitment to a vision
  • Stimulates high performance standards
  • Large ego – high level of personal charisma
  • Does not provide for the successors
  • Looks out the window to place blame
  • Looks in the mirror to claim success


What they found rather amazed them. Many of the companies that actually had the best sustained results over time and that at some point had begun that trend upward were actually somewhat obscure. One reason they were obscure was that their CEOs were people who shunned the limelight and tended to talk in terms of “we” not “me.” It was not that Level 4 leaders were poor. They did succeed, but they did not succeed as fully as the Level 5 leaders. And more importantly, their organizations did not sustain the success after they left. Those who did succeed over time and turn things around consistently were leaders who were personally humble and well focused on the purpose of the organization, not their own careers. They built up those around them and developed successors who carried on the organization with the same values.


The Derailment Conspiracy

Yet our eyes do not deceive us; self promoters can and do get ahead. Although Level 4 leaders are more about personal charisma, blaming others and taking personal credit, they do get results—mostly short term. But, they also derail at a relatively high rate. The Center for Creative Leadership says that “because of the confidence built by (early) success and the presence of demonstrated strengths, it is possible to dismiss potential weaknesses as unimportant or nonexistent.” Interpersonal factors (such as arrogance) and personal flaws (such as difficulty in receiving feedback or dealing with “bad luck” or change) cause blind spots in future leaders. They find out too late that they have become the proverbial emperor who has no clothes.


The Lesson

It turns out that the lessons of leadership are as old as Ozymandius or Achilles: pride generally goes before a fall. You do not have to toot your own horn, but you should persist in acting with both humility and a resolute focus on the mission. Don’t get discouraged by lack of recognition or early success. Build up the people around you and give them credit—and do the same for your boss. In the long run, at the end of the marathon, you will be working in a better organization with better results and people will love coming to work with and for you. That’s a legacy well earned.



Ray Blunt currently teaches philosophy and theology to juniors and seniors at Ad Fontes Academy, a classical Christian school in Centreville, VA. He is the author of Crossed Lives, Crossed Purposes: Why Thomas Jefferson Failed and William Wilberforce Persisted in Leading an End to Slavery, an historical leadership exploration, and a contributor to The Jossey-Bass Reader on Non-Profit and Public Leadership. Ray has long served as a leadership consultant, teacher, and speaker for many government and non-profit organizations after spending 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a Senior Executive. He is B.J.'s husband of 50 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.


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  1. A Legacy of 21st Century Leadership, by James Trinka and Les Wallace

  2. Good to Great, by Jim Collins

  3. Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins