Category Archives: 2019

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Humility, Self-Preservation, and the Art of the Humblebrag

Category : 2019

“Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility,”

(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 829,000 words, senses, and compounds. Over 2,000 words were added to this tome in 2018. Business evolution gave us new terms like e-signature, biohacking, force quit, and airplane mode. Shifts in culture produced notables like vape, binge-watch, a new meaning for the word snowflake, and humblebrag.

A humblebrag is making “an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud,” (Oxford Dictionary). Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide a wide platform for executive humblebragging. Search #humblebrag on Twitter and the results are endless.

  • A well-known comedian wrote, “Being famous and having a fender bender is weird. You want to be upset but the other driver’s (sic) just thrilled & giddy that it’s you.”
  • One Hollywood celebrity shared, “Totally walked down the wrong escalator at the airport from the flash of the cameras. Go me . . . “
  • A former White House Press Secretary bemoaned, “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

Popular web articles attempt to help people traverse the humblebrag minefield with –

  • How to Brag at Work (Without Sounding Like a Jerk)
  • How to Humblebrag at Work to Get Ahead
  • The Tricks to Bragging at Work Without Sounding Arrogant

The obvious implication is that regardless of what floor your elevator stops at, when you humblebrag you may not get ahead, you can sound like a jerk, and you may be perceived as arrogant. Life is full of trade-offs . . .

The Shakespearian question to brag or not to brag pops up in an executive interview with the oft-repeated, “Tell me about your biggest weakness.” The candidate is faced with deciding to be genuinely transparent about something he or she doesn’t do well, or choosing to feign humility while engaging in blatant self-promotion with a line like-

  • So much international travel makes it difficult to build relationships with executives at my club.
  • My drive for perfection makes me impatient with underperformers.
  • I’ve been told my intellect makes it hard for people to relate to me.
  • I’ve found I need to be more deliberate when discussing financials with my team-they don’t seem to grasp numbers as quickly as I do.

A famous 19th century orator noted, “I do hate, of all things, that humility which lives in the face.” Valid research concludes when you try wearing humility on your face, you need to leave room for the egg.

Francesca Gina and Michael Norton at Harvard teamed up with Ovul Sezer at the University of North Carolina to conduct a series of studies into humblebragging, presenting their findings in a paper titled Humblebragging: A Distinct-and Ineffective-Self-Presentation Strategy. Their experiments produced a straightforward conclusion-humblebragging doesn’t get you liked or respected because it is overshadowed by insincerity.

“Perceived sincerity is a critical factor in determining the success of self-presentation . . . We suggest that despite its prevalence, humblebragging may be ineffective in making a favorable impression due to the perceived insincerity it generates . . .” (Gina, Norton, & Sezer). The research went a step farther, noting that humblebraggers are not only considered less sincere, they are considered less competent than those who outwardly brag.

Here are four actions that will keep you out of the humblebrag vortex.

  • Own who you are. No executive is omnicompetent and every executive has one or more areas of weakness. Glossing over a valid competence gap with a humblebrag redirect makes the executive look more like Houdini than a leader. People trust-and follow someone they know tells the truth-even when it doesn’t make the leader’s image shine. Don’t worry about what people think of you . . . they rarely do.
  • Promote your contributions-not yourself. A brand is built on results, not rhetoric. There is nothing wrong with owning and talking about how you helped a company (if it isn’t all you talk about). If you bring on board a record of accomplishment-sell it. Just don’t try to disguise your obvious competence in a ruse of feigned humility or cloaked in a humblebrag.
  • Pursue genuine humility. While rarely chosen as a corporate competence, humility is a quality we highly value in those who aren’t aware they have it. Humility isn’t denying one’s abilities or hiding one’s faults. Humility is leveraging your abilities every way possible while staying keenly aware of when you need others to complement your gaps. Ken Blanchard wisely notes that, “People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.”
  • Be candid-and discreet. Avoiding humblebragging isn’t an invitation to be a walking tabloid about your life. Transparency expects truthfulness but doesn’t require full disclosure about every detail.

Author Gene Brown is right. “The really tough thing about humility is you can’t brag about it.”

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Still Flying … Lessons In Resilience

Category : 2019

Resilience is making a comeback in our corporate vocabulary. From Angela Duckworth’s best-selling Grit to the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program to companies trying to ensure their own cyber survival, resilience is gaining new ground.

Resilience, perseverance, and tenacity were frequent themes during memorial events remembering Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. Between tears of appreciation and laughter over Kelleher’s unconventional and often edgy approach to anything he did, celebrating the life of this Texas legend became a testimony to the resilience of the company he founded.

A market disruptor before disruption was cool, Southwest began in 1969, but didn’t take off until 1971. Before they could put a plane in the air, three competing airlines filed suit to end Southwest before it began. Kelleher fought the suit to the U.S. Supreme Court and in December 1970, the high court sided with Southwest. Even with the Wright Amendment clipping their wings for 35 years, perseverance and resilience enabled Southwest to become the largest domestic carrier in the United States. In January 2018, the airline announced a 45th consecutive year of profitability.

What makes a person or a company of people resilient? What does it take to recover quickly from a set-back, to spring back into shape after getting hit, or to bounce back again and again from a series of adverse events or stressful circumstances?

The U.S. Army’s resilience initiative includes three training components-mental toughness, signature strengths, and strong relationships. Psychology Today identifies factors of resilience as a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback.

Resilience isn’t being smarter than everyone. A study of West Point cadets that make it through their initial training found no correlation between aptitude and grit. And resilience is more than staying at a task after all your resources are depleted. Studies find resilience is developed, not decreed. It is a set of thoughts, behaviors, and deliberate actions that enable a person to recover, reinvent, and return to a goal.

How do we develop this valuable trait? Resilient people are –


In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Shawn Anchor reported 10 years of research found, “when the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31%, sales increase by 37%, and creativity and revenues can triple.” Anchor went on to say, “the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”


Research from Texas A&M University found the key to resilience is working hard and then stopping, recovering, and trying again. Building resilience requires adequate moments of recovery. A scheduled short break during an intense push, shifting attention to a different subject or task, or carving out time for genuine relaxation on a weekend all contribute to a rested and resilient executive. Resilient executives know that to be fully engaged, the brain needs space to gain new perspectives and regain energy.


When William Casey was the Army Chief of Staff, he launched the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program to proactively address the challenges impacting soldiers and their families resulting from multiple deployments. The goal was to provide preventative skills that would enable soldiers and their families to face adversity and bounce back stronger than when they started. While not without critics, the program had found building resilience and enhancing performance needs to equally address the physical, social, emotional, family and spiritual dimensions of a soldier’s life. Soldiers weather combat best when they have a solid network of strong relationships.


Resilient leaders are self-aware, accept their limitations, and recognize the fallacies in a plan before they invest more time in something that is designed to fail. These leaders reject the learned helplessness that comes from hiding personal uncertainty under the guise of “risk management.” They own failure as an honest and valued instructor and engage in self-corrective action to find a better road to success.

One final caveat. The downside of cultivating resilience is that you must face situations requiring it to develop it. Considered by many to be a political wash-out in his 50’s, twenty years later Winston Churchill led England through some of the most difficult days in its history. The resilience he called for in the British people was the same resilience he developed in his life, discovering in the crucible of difficulty that, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

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NFL Game Balls

Category : 2019

Are Companies Wisest to Buy Results or Potential?
(or, why is a NFL football broken in before play begins)

(Somewhat Related Preamble: have you noticed that NFL game balls are not used right out of the box? The shiny, slick surface has been removed so that the balls perform in the intended fashion and at the highest level.)

At age 32, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay made history when he was hired as the youngest NFL coach in modern history. He is joined by six other NFL head coaches under the age of 45. Over the past 20 years, the average NFL coaching hire was 48 years old.

So, what was John Elway thinking when he gave 60-year-old Vic Fangio a four-year contract to lead the Denver Broncos? While other NFL franchises are hiring for the future, Elway chose to leverage the past. When announcing his choice, Elway noted, “There are few things that Vic has not seen in 40 years of coaching. He’s been great on the defensive side of the ball . . . with a simple, detailed approach that gets results. With his intelligence and experience, Vic is as good of a football coach as you can find.”

Many companies think the only place to find qualified candidates is at the fountain of youth. At age 32, Mark Zuckerberg heads the list of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs. Warren Buffett carries the distinction of the oldest Fortune 500 top executive at age 85. That translates to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway giving the market 96 quarters of earnings as a Fortune 500 and a stock price around $300,000 per share. Zuckerberg can market 16 quarters of earnings and a stock price closer to $150 per share.

Progressive employers are re-thinking their strategy and hiring professionals with broad resumes of contributions and expertise. How does an executive position his/herself for longevity in a competitive market?

Build the brand around miles traveled, not how long you’ve been on the road.

Many executives on the back half of their career journey aren’t considered for a senior role because they attempt to sell their experience, not expertise and value. Companies are hiring for where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve done-not for how long you’ve been traveling. When an executive talks about “experience” to someone young enough to be their child, the leader unconsciously promotes ageism stereotypes.

Maintain your relevance and transferability.

Being the guardian of a legacy system or proprietary process is a liability, not insurance. Some people mistakenly think creating indispensability is a sure way to ensure career longevity. In a market propelled by disruptive innovation and emerging technologies, refusing to reinvent oneself is a sure way to bring a career journey to an abrupt end. Executives at former telecom giants painfully discovered failing to keep up with industry evolutions was a fast way to look like a dinosaur.

Headline your brand, not your title.

Scan LinkedIn and you see many executives use their headline (the most important part of a profile) to list a current title, not a value contribution. Executives that successfully extend their career journeys demonstrate versatility by clearly communicating how they impact cash, growth, profitability, etc. A solid brand positions someone in the market by promoting results and value. A title promotes an expectation that may have little to do with impact.

Show you have the energy to keep up with the team.

The pace of business and the frequency of change are staggering. Even young professionals are, at times, overwhelmed with employer expectations and job demands. An executive wanting to stay in the game demonstrates he/she has the stamina and energy to keep playing when others want to sit out an inning. Trying to hide greying hair with a poor dye-job or talking about how many hours you played golf over the weekend isn’t how a leader communicates youthfulness. Taking care of your health, losing that extra 20 pounds, and maintaining a pace of work that parallels younger colleagues is a better formula for longevity.

John Elway isn’t the only person hiring someone who brings 40 years of success to a role. Branding, positioning, and engaging with all you bring a potential employer attracts the attention of companies that want results, not potential.