A slice of humble pie

I sat through a talk recently about the virtues of humility and about how rare and wonderful it is to encounter an individual who is truly humble.

I sat through a talk recently about the virtues of humility and about how rare and wonderful it is to encounter an individual who is truly humble.

The speaker cited Moses as an example. Not Moses Malone, the Hall of Fame basketball player, or Robert Moses, who built the Triborough Bridge, but biblical Moses – the one who parted the Red Sea. Apparently this Moses was not just humble and self-effacing, he was also fearless and capable of confronting the most daunting challenges.

It made me think of something that happened early in my career. At the time I worked for Nissan North America and I was the corporate manager of corporate communications. It was a respectable title and a place where many rode out their career because just above corporate manager, the executive funnel narrowed dramatically.

The next level up was director, and it marked the entrance to senior management. I was dying to be a director, as it was a big step up in responsibility, status, and compensation. Directors sat in on the monthly management meetings and helped construct the overall strategic plan. And they were part of the executive bonus pool.

As a corporate manager, I reported to the general counsel of the company, but still had a lot of interaction with the CEO. I wrote his speeches, arranged his media interviews, and handled his community and employee interactions. We had a close relationship and I knew he appreciated my work. One day he called me into his office and let me know that he was nominating me for a bump up to director. I was ecstatic.

But I had to be patient. Promotions were approved only once a year and were subject to review by the promotions committee. That year, the entire process was being re-engineered, and the head of human resources was in charge of the revamp.

I happened to be in the meeting when the new promotions process was submitted for approval. It could not have gone worse. The CEO was angry, disappointed with the proposal, and declared that the HR department would have to “go back to the drawing board.”

The meeting ended with everyone frustrated, especially me. My promotion was now being delayed for who knows how long and I worried that my chance would somehow get derailed. I also felt like I was being punished for the incompetence of the HR department.

And so I did something very stupid – I whined.

Right after the meeting I went to the CEO and petulantly said, “What about my promotion?”

He was still seething from the meeting and my self-indulgence set him over the edge. His face was red and he said, “Do you have any idea how much is riding on this promotions process? It involves our entire management team, not just you. I can't believe you came in to complain about how it affects you personally.

“I'm tempted to deny you the promotion entirely. There's a very fine line between kindness and weakness. You just confused the two. Don't ever do it again.”

I thought about his words for a long time and I struggled to fully understand what he was saying. But now I get it. Just because someone's kind and approachable doesn't mean they aren't strong or decisive. Never make the mistake of confusing an approachable manner for a soft touch. And never forget that your boss has a lot more on his or her plate than you.

Kindness doesn't mean weakness – just ask Moses.

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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