Self-Effacement Doesn’t Sell Executive Leadership


Self-Effacement Doesn’t Sell Executive Leadership

There is an iconic image some would be executives believe they should exemplify. We hear many variants of the image at VIM Executive Coaching here in Denver and Boulder all of the time. 

It is the image of an ancient Chinese priest and warrior, born into a philosophy of a minimalist lifestyle having an empty rice bowl and always bowing deeply in humility, self-pity and self-effacement. While there are many positive elements to that image that we should explore, it is also a stereotype that is inaccurate.

Humility can be a good thing for any executive leader to embrace. We should all be a bit humble. For example, “I don’t know everything,” or “I appreciate management awarding me this plaque for meeting our quota, but it was a team effort.” Both of those responses “sell” a leader on being a humble leader. Humility can be a good thing, especially if it is heartfelt and manifests itself in a positive direction. For example. The executive who is presented with a plaque calling a meeting with her team and praising everyone in the group for helping her win the award. 

However, let us imagine the executive being presented with the plaque and saying to her CEO, “Thank you very much boss, but I really don’t deserve this,” or another example might be, “I really don’t know everything, I wasn’t much of a student – I majored in golf.” In those examples, the clawing attempts at self-effacement even with a twist of humor are much more destructive than constructive. In the first example, the executive is saying to her boss, “I’m really not worthy of this, I really don’t want it, and you probably should have given it to someone else much better and smarter.” In the second example, artificially trying to get down to another level by degrading oneself in terms of education or any other quality, only serves to erode credibility.

What the Chinese priest might have said
The great warrior philosophers or Zen priests of old were humble that is true, and they were non-violent in thought and action, but they were not self-effacing. Having only a few possessions was a philosophy of non-attachment to material things, but they were extremely serious in regard to their “arts.” The arts might have included poetry, flower arranging, pottery making, calligraphy or what we know as the martial arts. They took all of those arts (and many more) very seriously. They worked hard to become masters though they understood no one is ever truly a “Master.” As the years might have passed, many of these men (and women) attracted students who appreciated the dedication, intensity and focus devoted to the pursuit of perfection.

Therefore, the ancient warriors remained non-violent in thought and action until there was absolutely no choice. They thought deeply on any response, avoiding reaction to harm another.

As the students were devoted to the “Masters,” the masters were every bit as devoted to their students. Non-attachment to material possessions had nothing to do with it. Therefore, an ancient potter who had a loyal following, might have spent a year in producing one or two exceptional teapot, destroying hundreds that were felt less than perfect (even though many among the hundreds were beautiful).   

When praised about the teapot, the Master might have bowed and said, “Thank you for your great kindness in regard to your servant’s humble efforts.” However, the Master would not have said, “It is nothing and I am nothing. I made it by accident.”

A fast forward
Everything applied to the ancient warriors and artists applies to today’s workplace, and especially to executives who manage people. An executive can and should be humble in their accomplishments, but they should not be so self-effacing as to erode all of their credibility and leadership skills. 

Leadership, people skills, business skills ranging from accounting to marketing, production to financial analysis are modern day arts. Subordinates appreciate the responsive, authentic leader who works very hard to perfect those arts. Subordinates quickly shy away from the leader who constantly denigrates themselves by a steady stream of denial, self-effacement and mock humility. In fact, an over-reliance on self-effacement usually has the opposite effect than the intended.

It comes down to authenticity and mindfulness to understand that “Playing small,” often results in self-mockery. Throughout the ages, the best of the warriors never mocked themselves – or those who wanted to follow them.

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Bruce Wolk