Humility, Leadership, and Self Promotion, Oh My

What happens if you make light of your achievements, shun the spotlight, and pass the microphone on to the next person in line? Will this stunt your career growth?

microphoneI’ve worried about this for years. I used to deal with a guy who did very well as a professional expert, while knowing not much more than what he’d read the in a trade journal or two the night before a presentation. That never bothered him. And he did very well. And it kind of bothered me.

And then we have the new world order of personal branding, led by experts like Dan Schawbel, Jonathan Fields, Pam Slim, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, John Jantsch, and many others.  Dan is the leading expert as defined by Google. Those others are great personal brands, acknowledged experts. What does personal branding say about humility? Can you get there with humility? (hint: some do, some don’t.)

I’d like to think that the world rewards people who let others tell their achievements. But does it?  Can someone who doesn’t love the spotlight be a leader?  A leader is defined by followers. What if you never take credit and stick in the background? Will your would-be followers ever find you? Will they give you credit?

I was happy to see this note included in Startup lessons learned from Warren Buffett published on VentureBeat over the weekend:

Like self-deprecation, humor has a disarming effect.

In context that’s more about humor than self deprecation, but the quote itself, coming from Warren Buffett, has some power. Right?

I also like Humility as a Leadership Trait by John Baldoni at He writes:

A sense of humility is essential to leadership because it authenticates a person’s humanity. We humans are frail creatures; we have our faults. Recognizing what we do well, as well as what we do not do so well, is vital to self-awareness and paramount to humility.

He goes on, in that post, to list ways to demonstrate humility in the workplace. Temper authority, look to promote others, acknowledge what others do.

And yet, much as I like this idea, I think it has to be tempered with reality. People are busy. People need to be told what they think. If you don’t take credit, somebody else will. Baldoni says:

Can you be too humble in the workplace? Yes. If you fail to put yourself, or more importantly your ideas, forward, you will be overlooked. Chances for promotion will evaporate, but worse you will not give anyone a reason to believe in you. All of us need not lead others, but those who do seek to influence, to change, to guide, and to lead their organizations, need to find ways to get noticed. Again humility comes to the rescue. That is, if you celebrate team first, self second, people will notice what you and your team have achieved.

Damn: paradox. Lack of a general rule. All of it case by case. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a conclusion there about doing the right things in moderation. What do you think?

(Image: Marie C. Fields/Shutterstock)


  • Barry Dennis says:

    I defer to the Chinese reflection on the extremes of Yin and Yang, the forces in opposition. As the concept goes, moderation in balancing the forces best serves one’s interests.
    There are times when more of one or the other is needed to accomplish a goal.
    And, Moderation may be great at managing stress, but one has to be careful not to be eclipsed by the blowhard, the braggart, those who seek credit with bluster rather than substance.
    A great manager knows the difference and is instinctive, or trained to see the capability in his team members. Unfortunately, not all managers are great, not all people are reasonable, and not all results reflect the acknowledgement of those who most contributed.
    One must seek the opportunity to evidence their contributions and leadership, or create such an opportunity…moderately.

  • Aaron Templer says:

    Thanks for this synthesis Tim.

    There’s a solid reason for facilitating the promotion of your value as opposed to doing it yourself: it works better. Self promotion is spam in real life or social networking. On the other hand, people believe brands (personal or otherwise) that are recommended to them.

    If you take the time to build relationships around you by adding value to those in your network ahead of your own needs, you will build relationships that become *your* brand ambassadors who are happy to promote your value when the time comes. It’s a long-term and holistic approach, but much more effective.

  • Tumaini Rivera says:

    I agree with Sam. It’s ok to toot your own horn. As a matter of fact, I believe that YOU are the only one who should toot/tweet if you can back it up (especially for startups). After you’ve got your product/service out there, AND IT’S WORTH TOOTING, then others will do the tooting for you! Evangelists, I think is what Guy Kawasaki calls them!

    Tumaini Rivera
    Mom, Artist, Budding Entrepreneur
    Twitter: @flippinfactory and @breastmilk

  • Sam Richter says:

    Great post and it is a paradox. I much prefer “other promotion” to self-promotion. Let other people tell the world how great you are (assuming you are). Over the years, I’ve told thousands of people about B-Plans software and Tim Berry — because you can back it up. At the same time, you participate in “self-promotion” in the sense that when someone searches for you, you make yourself and your company easy to find.

    I think it’s okay to “toot your own horn” so others can easily find you, so long as you can back up your “tooting” with substance that is valuable to the other person. Where I personally get annoyed is with people who “toot” for “tootings sake.” In today’s world, you can replace “toot” with “Tweet” and you’ll understand what I mean.

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