Dean's Corner News

Practicing Humility in a Self-Promoting World

Dean Richard Franza’s column appeared in the Sunday, July 4 edition of the Augusta Chronicle. The post can be viewed here.

“There are three paths to heaven. The first is humility, the second is humility and the third is humility.” 

While this was told to me within the past decade or so, I cannot remember who told me. However, it has stuck with me, particularly when I start to get full of myself and think that I am somehow better than others. 

I also think about it often during the times I am on social media. I am not a huge participant in social media, but I do spend a decent amount of time on LinkedIn because it is a great place to catch up with former colleagues and business friends. One thing that I have noticed more than anything else about social media is most people’s propensity to use it as a vehicle for self-promotion, which often seems to undermine their humility. 

In this column, I would like to explore the concept of humility, how it is applied in a business setting and how we can still practice humility while providing what I will call “appropriate self-promotion.”

Humility is generally characterized as a modest view of one’s self, displaying a lack of arrogance and possessing genuine gratitude. There certainly is some difference in the application of humility from a biblical perspective vs. a business perspective. However, such applications are complementary and reinforcing. 

In the Bible, humility focuses on putting our complete trust in God, eliminating the arrogance of ego and putting others above ourselves. Philippians 2:3-7 tells us: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

The biblical perspective of humility provides us some clues on how we might apply humility in the business world, including social media. However, we first must dig deeper into the perception of humility in business. 

Many are of the misguided opinion that those who are humble are easily “run over” and have a low opinion of themselves. However, I think C.S. Lewis captured it best when he said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” I think all of us would like to be led by people who embody that definition of humility. So, let’s look at how a humble outlook can make you more successful in business and a more successful leader.

Humility works well in business because it makes us more receptive to feedback and constructive criticism and also more accountable for our mistakes. Those lacking humility typically dismiss criticism and blame others for their mistakes. A team functions much better when its leaders and members are humble and willing to learn from one another. 

Humility by a leader tends to empower employees. The employees become more willing to speak up and offer suggestions and in turn are more satisfied at work, leading to improved company performance and increased retention. Such humility creates a culture of engagement and innovation, helping lead to long-term business sustainability. 

Humility has definitely been shown to drive strong results. In his must-read business book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins found that in companies that transitioned from average to superior market performance, they had CEOs with two common traits: personal humility and the indomitable will to advance the cause of the organization – putting the organization ahead of self.

It seems that humility is a great trait to have in business, but why do we typically see many people in business, particularly when they are on social media, forgoing humility for self-promotion? I think most believe they have a good reason for it. In particular, it makes them stand out from the crowd, which is important when one is seeking employment, a raise or promotion. 

Such promotion can also attract the attention of potential clients and customers who become aware of our good work, products or services. However, many such employers, customers and clients are turned off by such blatant self-promotion. 

So, how do we go about making people aware of our abilities while also maintaining humility? Here are a few things I recommend you might consider doing on social media and in other arenas to temper your self-promotion with humility.

First and foremost, recognize that others played an important part in your success and you clearly did not do it all on your own. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce event at which the keynote speaker was Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carla Wong McMillian. While her presentation included many of her outstanding accomplishments, she made it clear that those accomplishments would not have been possible without the many people who supported her and her family. Her humility and gratitude shined throughout her talk.

Similarly, when my two daughters posted on LinkedIn earlier this year that they had been hired for highly competitive and desirable jobs, I was very happy to see them recognize and thank the people who helped them be competitive for such opportunities. While there was certainly some self-promotion in their posts, their emphasis was on gratitude to those who helped and recognition that they did not do it by themselves.