By Ray Blunt
"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.
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.
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.
Ray Blunt is currently the Associate Director and Fellow at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. For the past 12 years he has served as a leadership consultant and teacher for the Council for Excellence in Government and the Federal Executive Institute as well as for several government and non-profit organizations. He spent 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He is B.J.'s husband of 43 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.