Ever Felt Embarrassed at being Awarded?


How do you think about humility? And. . . false humility? Maybe you share my ambivalence. Consider when YOU last received public or strong private praise. How was it? What was conjured, and how can you BEST relate when you’re receiving praise? It’s not just about you but also about how you lead!

Denial is my amusing first response. Perhaps not surprising, as denial is an anagram for my first name, Daniel. A couple weeks ago I got an email from Dean Stowsky that began, “Dear Dan, Congratulations on winning the Cheit Award” as best undergraduate instructor at University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. I felt 10% hoped-for-excitement, while 90% of my brain wondered: “Huh, I wonder which Dan won it?” I figured it was a mass email I was getting. I glanced and saw, no, it wasn’t a mass email but was personal to me, and then I thought, “Oh, this must be the old email I got when I won the award (a few years back).” You know how you can accidentally find yourself in an old email folder? But as I skimmed the body, I read something like “during this difficult time of remote teaching.” Okay, so it is now and it is me. Then my head blew up altogether, because much as I’ve tried, I have NOT felt like a good teacher in Zoomania. So, yep, that was Stage 1: Denial. Denial, that’s the first stage I realized of response to . . . um, yep death and dying!!! Wait, I’m having the same response to a nice thing, as to word of imminent death?!!!

Disbelief gave way to pride, and so I told Laura Andersen, my partner in LeadingX2 that I was receiving the award. Unlike my response, hers was one of effusive joy. She said she wanted to write about it here in Read2Lead.  Now, I felt, a cringe coming on. Modesty. And another cringe ‒”or, is this false modesty?” asked my ubiquitous inner critic. I know, I know, I think too much. Nevertheless, I think these responses which I have shared here in slow motion – are what most of us go through. I thought others might deal with these strange vestiges of humility – genuine and/or a bit false. So, I offer four thoughts for how leaders can constructively manage praise. Realize:

  1. Praise is a gift from someone(s). So, how ought one receive a gift? With grace! Because as anyone with wisdom knows, giving a gift is often more meaningful than getting one. When we receive a gift we have the opportunity to let the giver’s joy be complete. In this sense, false modesty is a buzz kill. When one says, “I don’t deserve this award (or praise),” they invalidate the giver(s)’ perception and generosity. It’s like saying, “Thanks, but you’re wrong!” Why not say to the giver, “What, what a surprise. I didn’t know you felt this way. Thanks.” 
  2. Praise is for meaning. That giver is telling you that the “work” you do matters. Laura let me feel my pride, because she said, “What is better than to be recognized for what matters to you, for your commitment to what you believe is important?” She said, “you don’t do it for the praise.” But for what is signified by the praise and that is significant to you. So an award brings you or me back to purpose, heart and meaning!
  3. Praise is innately about community and it offers us a chance to crow about that. I am a great teacher, because I had phenomenal models: Fr. Henri Nouwen, Ronnie Heifetz, Austin Sarat, Marjorie Resnick, Sr. Noel Toomey, Steven Breyer, Tom Kozak in 5th grade. And, my teaching assistants can and should be proud, because they make me and our classes so much better. Yes, it’s ritual that causes people to thank others at the Oscars or ESPYs or Tonys, but they are also reinforcing their and others’ sense of connection and meaning.  And if praise still makes you (me!) feel uncomfortable, then: 
  4. Praise someone else. If like me, it takes some work to admit your joy and appreciation at being recognized, or if you can naturally just feel the uplift, then look for chances to share such praise with others. The supply is limitless. It’s a classic virtuous cycle that induces the giver to keep praising and the receivers to share praise as well.

Many R2L readers over the years have led me to be a good thinker and teacher.  You know who you are. Let’s keep 

Leading with our best self. 

  • Congratulations on the award–much deserved I’m sure. And thanks for writing on the subject of accepting praise. I confess that I would be more generous in praising others if I hadn’t had too many experiences where the praise was either undercut or not acknowledged at all. I don’t like being reminded how many people don’t know how to take a compliment.

    • Sam, I had to read your comment twice! Even though your point parallels the one I was making, it still caused me a double-take: I wondered: Do I also withhold praise? And I realized, the answer is yes. For years I would ask my wife, “why do you deflect?” And the deflecting of the gift caused me to withhold. Still not sure why the deflection, but it makes me want to see if I am missing out on opportunities like that to share.
      (Maybe there is another blog to be written about this: what do we do when people don’t seem to want/need praise in the first place?)

  • I find something to learn in every column and this is one of your best. Congratulations on your Cheit award, and keep on enlightening us all!

  • You are the best Dan and you earned this recognition through your honest desire to lead with your best self! Congratulations.

  • >