Recently I heard a successful CEO tell about an event where he was given an award for his significant accomplishments in business. When the award was being presented to him, his wife who was there next to him, leaned in and said: “You are not that good.” The CEO thought that this was appropriate, as you should remember where you came from and remain humble.

As you can guess if you have been following my blog, I was horrified by the wife’s remark at many levels, but let’s focus here on why it was morally repugnant and should be dismissed by this and other successful business leaders.

What is the premise behind the “you are not that good” comment when made in the context of recognizing and celebrating someone’s achievement? It is the belief that we should not feel proud of our accomplishments—because we are really not that good, and it was merely luck or other people’s contributions that got the job done, such as developing a brilliant new product, or turning a company around and generating significant returns to its owners. This premise is of course wrong, and it is particularly hazardous in business.

Nothing gets accomplished by mere luck or by some unorganized collective effort. To build and run a successful business—one that produces material values—requires leadership. Someone has to take the initiative and the responsibility for getting that job done, and it cannot get done by adhering to the principle of humility. If a leader questions and belittles his own capacity to think, to decide, to delegate, and to get things done—“Who am I to know? Who am I to decide? Who am I to tell others what to do?”—he will not take initiative and make decisions: nothing will get achieved, produced, and traded.

Instead of humility that the “you are not that good” remark is trying to admonish, an effective business leader needs to embrace the moral principle of pride: the policy of doing one’s best. The principle of pride counsels moral ambitiousness, applying your mind to its fullest to whichever task or project you take on. It means constantly seeking better ways of doing things, both in lowering costs and in improving product or service quality. Pride as a motivational force and a driver of innovation is required, not just of leaders but of everyone working in business from the CEO to the mail room clerk, to succeed in the face of competition. But practicing pride is particularly important to those at the top of companies. They are the ones that set the tone and culture of their organizations, affecting the motivation and achievement of all who work for them.

Practicing pride provides a psychological reward: self-esteem—because you know you are doing your best.  Striving to do your best, you are confident in your mind’s ability to deal with whatever problems may come and motivated by achieving your values (a successful business, a productive career, or any other accomplishment). This leads to a virtuous circle of continuous pursuit of your best, self-esteem as its reward, and the pursuit of further improvement.

Applying the virtue of pride does not mean boastfulness or not acknowledging or claiming credit for other people’s achievements. But pride requires rejecting untrue put-downs such as “you are not that good” and concluding: “I am doing my best—I am good.” That is the best way for leaders and those working for them to make their businesses thrive.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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