Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: Humility, competitiveness actually go hand-in-hand

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Last week, we enjoyed attending the Economic Club of Indiana’s luncheon with our dean and several Ball State alums in Indianapolis. Scott Davison, CEO of OneAmerica, was the featured speaker.

We learned much from Scott. First, he reminded us that OneAmerica is not a bank but an insurance company. More important, Scott emphasized that the key to survival and transformation in any organization is for its members to practice humility and be “fiercely” competitive.

Many think being humble conflicts with being competitive. Actually, being genuinely humble complements being competitive. Being competitive is not being cutthroat, unethical or unreservedly selfish. Instead, it is to be earnestly dedicated.

Using a sports analogy, Adam Smith writes, “In the race for wealth, and honours, and preferments, he may run as hard as he can, and strain every nerve and every muscle, in order to outstrip all his competitors.” But Smith also says one must “humble the arrogance of his self-love” and play by the rules. Indeed, if, in the race, “one should justle, or throw down any of [his competitors] … it is a violation of fair play” and “cannot be accepted.”

As Davison indicated, competitive people know what they want to accomplish and tell stories to share their vision. They critically examine their organization’s assets to see what will drive positive transformational change. They are always looking to leverage their efforts in mutually beneficial partnerships.

In 2024, OneAmerica will sponsor the world’s largest indoor swimming event to increase the company’s visibility. But the partnership is also designed to increase Indianapolis’ reputation as a sports capital and to teach underserved kids to swim.

Similarly, humility is not the same as being insecure, equivocating and neurotic. Rather, humble people are genuinely open and seek others’ input. They dare to admit what needs to change and relentlessly desire to improve. They are brave enough to be vulnerable and approachable.

C.S. Lewis tells us, “Do not imagine if you meet a really humble man [that] he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: He will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”

True humility and drive are not in conflict. They are essential to self-discovery and growth.•

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Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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