Imagine you are at your company’s annual awards ceremony. It was a great year for you, as you increased both the value and the impact of your team. As you await the announcement, silence takes over the room. The emcee approaches the mic, looks right at you, and says, “Congratulations! You win . . . the silver medal!”
What? Silver? How do you feel?
Many of us would probably feel disappointed, perhaps a bit resentful. Jerry Seinfeld does a bit about this. “You win the gold, you feel good,” he says. “You win the bronze, you think . . . well, at least I got something. But you win the silver and it’s like, ‘Congratulations, you almost won!’”
As humans, we are wired such that we don’t like being second. Achievement, accomplishments, success—it’s all about being first, being best.
But context can change everything. And in the context of leadership, earning a silver medal takes on a completely different meaning.
As a leader, second place is right where you want to be. Why? Because leaders serve, and serving requires a willingness to embrace a big, dicey, powerful word that it is not thought about enough—humility.
Though they come from the same root word, humility is not the same as humiliation. They are in fact at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Humiliation” means to cause a loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity. To have “humility” is to have a modest opinion of one’s importance.
Humility is what allows us to acknowledge that we still have room for growth. It is what drives leaders to become better, and to make their team better as well—not the best, but better. As long as we don’t see ourselves as “first,” as “best,” we will understand that we still have something to aspire to, something to work toward, and a reason to embrace lifelong learning.
Humility also gives us the ability to recognize that other people have value. For humility doesn’t mean thinking less of oneself—rather, it simply means thinking of oneself less. When that happens, you put your team and the people around you first. You help them earn the gold rather than focusing on your own desire for it.
I’m going to throw another dicey word at you: benevolence. I didn’t appreciate its meaning until my colleague Laura Colbert hit me in the head with a benevolence 2×4. She told me to write down what benevolence means to me, and I would encourage everyone reading this to do the same. Is it an easy word for you? Or are you like me and unsure if you even spelled it correctly!
Unfortunately, we have all been in uncomfortable meetings or discussions where benevolence was missing. If it happens too often, the workplace will turn toxic, and every day will see employees just slogging through it until they can go home or sign off for the day. Nobody wants that.
On the other hand, a benevolent workplace equates to a trusting culture where people and teams are focused on each other, the mission, and results. A culture where people spend less time worrying and more time looking forward, raising their part of the organization to greater heights, and winning the gold. That culture is what happens when silver medal leaders think about their team members—their feelings, their worries, their motivations and needs—before themselves.
However, creating a foundation of benevolence requires deliberate action. Laura’s recommendations are as follows:
- First, ensure a mutual attitude of well-meaning intentions: if you must explicitly tell someone on your team that your sentiments come from a place of respect and kindness, then do it. If something doesn’t come across as well-meaning, say, “Please help me to understand what you mean by that” instead of letting the negative assumptions about the interaction build up. Stewing in anger and resentment doesn’t do any good and does not contribute to strong teams.
- Second, eliminate exposure of others’ weaknesses: if someone on your team is struggling, have a one-on-one with them. Do not call them out in front of their peers. And if you see this happening, stop it immediately. Remember, what you permit, you promote. Don’t be a boss or team member who lets toxic behavior happen under your nose. Only bullies exploit the weak. Build up your team instead of tearing them down.
- Third, talk to your team about benevolence: explain to them that you would rather they spend their time on productivity, efficiency, and finding joy in their work than worrying about if they said or did something wrong during yesterday’s meeting. Ask them to be forward-focused and to put their mental energy and capacities toward constructive and innovative ideas.
Remember, this is a foundation, not a recipe for perfect success. Silver medal leaders will apply these steps but will also continue reflecting on themselves and listening to their teams to understand what can be improved upon.
So I ask again: if you were back at that awards ceremony, waiting for the announcement, how would you feel at winning a silver medal . . . if your team is able to get the gold?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Hispanic Executive or Guerrero Media.
Jeff Marquez, founder of Marquez Leadership, Culture & Strategy LLC, works with business, government, and nonprofit leaders who want to lead as their better self, build a winning team, and succeed sustainably. A retired Army officer and former senior executive with the federal government, Marquez served on the National Security Council as the director of continuity policy and acting senior director for response policy. He led the team that developed the successful US drawdown from Iraq in 2011. In Hawaii, he led the transformation of United States Army forces in the Pacific. He also served as a chief of staff in the federal government. He has led continuity and infectious disease planning actions across the last two administrations.