Too humble? Really?

  • Edward Haigh

I’ve lost count of the number of times senior people in the world’s leading consulting firms have told me that one of their firm’s major attributes is humility.  

I don’t believe them. I reckon that humility, like fame, is undermined by being asserted. To feel the need to tell someone you’re famous is tantamount to admitting you’re not. To say you’re humble is, even more directly, to call into question your humility. It’s the meta version of the humble brag.

So, why do they do it? I see a couple of possibilities, both with an associated solution:

  1. They do it not because they are humble but because they want other people to think they are. Let’s be honest, if you were to start listing the types of people who were most likely to be humble then it would take you a long time to get to the point where million-dollar-a-year management consultants put in an appearance. And they know that. My bet is that many consultants don’t feel humble at all, but claim to be because they think it’s what people want them to be, and even because it’s what they themselves want to be. I suspect they also recognise a lack of humility in their competition and either like to think that they’re different or (worse) genuinely believe themselves to be so. But I really mean what I say: I’ve lost count of the number of firms who tell me that they’re humble, and they can’t all be, can they? Otherwise consultants and humility is, like, a thing. And it’s not a thing. I once heard a very plain-spoken Dutch consultant say the same of consulting firms’ claims about integrity. The more they talk about it, he said, the more you know they don’t have it. The solution: Stop talking about it.
  2. They do it because it’s the nicest way to justify failure. Claims of humility are most usually invoked when we present someone with some less-than-glittering data about how clients (and particularly prospective clients) see their firm. Our trouble, they assert by way of defence, is that we’re just too humble: We don’t like to shout about ourselves. Which, if you’ll pardon me speaking plainly, is a terrific pile of bullshit. What they really mean is that they’ve chronically underinvested in marketing to a point where nobody other than their most important clients has a good word to say about them or an entire field of capability has gone largely unnoticed by the market. If they knew it would win them one more big project with a new client, and they could get their act together enough to do it, they’d shout about themselves until they were hoarse. The solution: Invest in marketing.    

Of the two, my instinct tells me that the second will yield greater results. Not talking about being humble might move the dial slightly towards humility, but it’s unlikely to get you very far. And that’s probably OK: Underneath all that endlessly charming self-effacement you’re still a million-dollar-a-year management consultant whose business arguably depends, to some extent, on both you and your clients believing that you’re someone fairly impressive. Better, then, to acknowledge the real problem, which is an underinvestment in marketing. There’s humility in that, and a whole lot else besides.