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pride, pleasure and prejudice : sharing our stories of success

“I don’t want to sound arrogant.”“I don’t want to boast.”

“People could perceive me as being self-promotional and not a team player.”


How many times have I heard this refrain from the leaders I work with?

I get it. In fact, I welcome these moments, because they carry within them the potential for growth; a human being might be about to go beyond themselves and where they’ve been.

This training moment is often triggered by the opportunity (or the necessity) to tell a story of who we are, what we do, how we change a world.


These people are waiting for a green light that hasn’t yet been given – by themselves.

I’m shouting green lights all the way. Go! Shoot for this, be powerfully affirmational, you’ve got so much to share here! YES!


Uh, no.


They’re holding back, for a good reason: they want to make sure they’ll be safe.

Yes. Absolutely. This calculation needs to make sense:

“You’re encouraging me to fully own and celebrate who I am and what I’ve done, to take up more space, but….”


Here it comes:


“… I don’t want to appear arrogant, conceited, like I’m boasting.”


Good. We’re aligned- because I don’t want that for them either.


I was born and raised in a country that has a phenomenon called the “tall-poppy syndrome”. Visitors to what its citizens call “the lucky country” rave about the openness and laid-back quality of the locals. True, yet this can quickly turn if they sense arrogance, big-noting, a desire to elevate oneself above others. The perception that someone has a “big head” is reputational poison for an Aussie.


We aren’t alone in this. It can cause an over-compensation in the other direction.


I often hear a false polarity on this topic: we either need to be almost preternaturally humble about our achievements and positive qualities, lest we slip into what seems to many the only other option: to be “over the top” “selly” or “boasting”.


Really? Those are my choices? Might there be a way to energize and impress people without coming off as arrogant?



A Prejudiced View of Pride



I make a proposal in moments like this.


If we want to tell an engaging, enriching story of what we do and who we are, we need feelings of pride and pleasure to fuel us. This emotional fuel is what pulls the audience in to our experience.  


Don’t the facts speak for themselves? Well, no. In that room, on that call, the facts aren’t speaking – we are.


Okay, let’s look at pride.


1.     a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.


Therein lies the rub: we have internalized the more negative aspects of this definition.

“Inordinate” opinion of ourselves; “superiority”.


Cherished in the mind is interesting: yes, shouldn’t we cherish those moments that represent achievement, impact, mastery, value to others?


Yes we should. Yet… it’s a rockface for many leaders. Dangerous.



Pride and Prejudice : A Conflict for the Ages

The VP, a top player in his space, is feeling the conflict.


He’s throwing everything at me. “I don’t want to sound like Trump. Lying, exaggerating, arrogant. Alienating half the company in twenty minutes.”


He’s new - an elite gun brought in by an ambitious CEO of an organization that seems to be cresting a new peak phase. This guy is here to maximize that growth and be a new public face for the mission.


He’s torn.


This elite player in his space knows that he’s understating his background. He’s neutralizing the power of his experience. He’s emotionally uncharged during what should be his most affective moments. He’s witnessing himself do these things and his frustration mounts.


But he’s also spent his life in an environment that felt profoundly unsafe for this kind of public sharing.

The fear of loss – loss of acceptance, loss of reputation, loss of social currency within his new company – is a straitjacket, preventing him from really MOVING on this.


We don’t train. We have a dialogue on this: welcoming in the doubt & resistance, and gently challenging the pre-suppositions.


It doesn’t last long, because the moment this human being is open to trying something new – the second the window opens - it’s time to try it. Try what?


Dramatizing the events being shared.


Alert to self: this is a dangerous word to use. People have all kinds of associations with the idea of ‘drama’. This leader certainly did.




1.     an exciting, emotional, or unexpected event or circumstance.


Another definition adds striking to this list. I’ll include that here.

This leader was sharing a series of experiences and projects intended to engage and impress his audience.


We take one of them, and I ask what usually turns out to be a magic question.


“What was striking, unexpected, emotional or exciting about this use case?”


The question is magic for a simple, practical reason: it usually generates CONTENT.


And he’s off. Enthusiasm returns; passion appears; just as importantly, he gets specific and experiential, offering dramatic detail that puts me there as the listener.


He forgets his problems associated with being proud and pleased with his accomplishments  and, consequently, they vibrate through every sentence.


3 mins. 20 seconds later.


He’s finished. Eyes are bright.


“So how does it feel to be dramatic?”




When Should We Worry About Being Arrogant or Boastful?



“How much is too much? Where’s the line?”


I’m reminded of the story of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who lived sometime around the 5th century.


He made many travels, and was said to have arrived at the Liang Dynasty at some point between the years 502-557.


During this time, he was called to have an audience with the divinely ordained monarch from that period, Emperor Wudi.


This Emperor had spent a lot of his precious time and resources building multiple monasteries and temples, all with one aim : the accumulation of spiritual merit, or what we might call karma.

He wanted to know from Bodhidharma: how much merit did the monk think he had gained through these acts?


Now, I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially the monk told him that if he’d built all of these edifices with the intent of gaining merit, none of it had any real value. He said something to the effect of, “positive karma arises not from the deeds themselves but from the purity of intention behind them.”


I have no idea what befell the monk after delivering this tough love to the Emperor. But it’s instructive, and a core message I give any leader experiencing the pride & prejudice conflict:

When we seek to enrich our audience, and have no concern for elevating ourselves or transmitting a sense of superiority… we’re safe.


At that moment? Let the birds fly.


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