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Taking Credit

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

True success in business -- and in life -- comes when it's not about you.

"Some Bosses Never Meet a Success that Isn't Theirs" was the title of a recent Wall Street Journal piece (April 23/03).

It's a far cry from what a friend wrote in my eighth grade yearbook, "There is no limit to how much a man can accomplish or how far he can succeed as long as he doesn't mind who gets the credit." And it's even more distant from the Jewish teaching that states that giving credit to the source of an idea will bring the ultimate redemption.

When we give others credit, we subjugate our egos and demonstrate it's not only about me. This is the key to living in harmony with others.

There are three Jewish holidays where the entire Jewish people would descend upon Jerusalem. How did everyone fit in the Temple? The Talmud says that when everyone stood upright, it was uncomfortably crowded. But when everyone bowed their heads, there was plenty of room.

If we stand proud and arrogant, demanding our due, we crowd out others and impede the potential for unification. But if we humbly make room for others and resist the pull of our ego, unity becomes a realistic goal.

In case the prevention of the lofty ideal of "peace on earth" doesn't quite impede your upward career projective, taking credit for yourself is not an effective way to lead, especially if you're stealing someone else's ideas and creations.

As Jared Sandberg, the author of the WSJ article suggests, taking unwarranted credit breeds distrust and torpedoes motivation. Taking the credit may give the ego a temporary sense of accomplishment, but that illusory feeling will eventually be lost in the toxic and unproductive workplace you've built.

Who wants to work for a boss who steals their efforts? Who wants to be innovative only to watch their supervisor reap the rewards?

"You never lose any credit by giving it away."

But I'm no business expert. I've never run a business or managed employees. I've never been tempted to steal credit in order to enhance my standing in an employer's eyes in the hopes of a raise, a bonus, more power or more honor. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's possible to succeed financially by stepping on others and appropriating their ideas as your own.

I do know that it's not possible for your character to remain intact. By taking unjustified credit, making your work a shrine to your ego, you undoubtedly hurt the originator of the idea, and most probably your relationship with your colleagues. But the person most damaged is you.

Professor Paul Lapides, of Kennesaw State University's Corporate Governance Center, suggests "You never lose any credit by giving it away." (Ibid.) You are raised in the eyes of your employees and co-workers. You create an environment of trust and openness. People are inspired to be creative and think independently. Everyone feels invested in the outcome and accomplishments are greater.

I know a man who runs a multi-million dollar mutual fund. All his colleagues attribute his success to his team spirit and his nurturing of others. "It was never about him," they say.

Ethics of our Fathers teaches that "If a man runs after honor, honor runs away from him; but if a man runs away from honor, honor pursues him."

We all recognize how unpleasant it is to spend time with someone whose focus is only on him or herself -- how alienating and painful it is (not to mention boring) -- and how such efforts at self-aggrandizement ultimately fail. We know stories of people who are constantly seeking honor who end up on the front page of the New York Times involved in the latest fraud scandal.

There are fewer stories of those whom honor chases. Since they don't seek public acclaim no one but a select few know who they are. Yet their impact is deep and lasting.

I heard once of a great rabbi who grew up in abject poverty. Things reached such a drastic point that his father had to go to the school administration and explain that he was pulling his son out of the Jewish day school and sending him to public school because he could no longer afford the tuition.

A wealthy man overheard this conversation and later told the principal he would sponsor this student. The donation was anonymous and his name is lost to history. But his contribution isn't. All the students of this rabbi, all of his Torah learning and accomplishments, are in his merit. It's a tremendous honor but a very private one.

Human nature has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Whether the workplace is a cave, an open-air market, a desert caravan, a pushcart or a high-tech company, the principles are the same. True success in business -- and in life -- comes when it's not about you. And not only will you boost your company's morale and profits, you just might have a role in bringing the redemption.


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