Humble Pride –Steadfast Resolve Is Vital To A Startup’s Success

In the Western movie The Magnificent Seven, the protagonists are escorted out of the town they were hired to defend, unarmed and under gunpoint. Once they are a few miles out of town, their gun belts are tossed on the ground and the banditos who defeated them ride away.

The group’s leader, Chris, played by Yul Brynner, surveys his defeated men, trying to assess his team’s morale. With no preamble, James Coburn’s character, Honest Britt, jumps from his horse and straps on his gun belt while saying, “Nobody throws me my own guns and says, ‘Run.’ Nobody.”

Honest makes it clear that he is going back to town, with or without the rest of the group. Several of the other riders dismount and silently strap on their gun belts as well, indicating their intention to join Honest.

However, Harry, the Magnificent Seven gunslinger with the most overtly mercenary intentions, derides the group for their willingness to ride to their deaths. He attempts to enlist the support of his friend, Lee, by trying to convince him to abandon the team’s objective.

Harry (angrily): “You’re crazy, all of you.”

Chris (calmly): “Ride on Harry, it’s alright.”

Harry: “Come on Lee.”

Chris to Lee: “You don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Lee (after a long pause): “Except to myself.”

Harry then rides off alone. The remaining riders turn their mounts toward town, despite the risks they face.

Back Story

In the preceding scene, the Magnificent Seven were run out of town by the bandito Calvera, played by Eli Wallach. Calvera has the hired guns outnumbered three to one. However, he is willing to release the captured gringo mercenaries because he assumes that they are as shameless and selfish as him. He does not realize that they have something he does not – Humble Pride.

We are shown Honest’s blend of humility and pride when he shoots a fleeing bandito off of his horse from a great distance. His compatriot says in awe, “That was the most amazing shot I have ever seen.” To which Honest honestly replies, “I was aiming for his horse.” You can be proud and humble at the same time. Honest.

Play For Pride

Startups need pride. You cannot expect to earn the respect of potential Stakeholders and Donors without communicating a humble pride in your team, products and the ultimate prospects of your adVenture. Your team should be prideful, not arrogantly proud.

Pride has two basic meanings, although in most Western Cultures, the most common meaning carries a negative connotation. The dark side of pride is often described as “arrogant or disdainful conduct or treatment of others; haughtiness resulting in an excessively conceited opinion of oneself.” We are told as children that “pride comes before a fall.”

The positive definitions of pride include, “a sense of one's own proper dignity or value; self-respect and the pleasure or satisfaction taken in an achievement, possession, or association with others.” This is the sort of pride you should foster in your culture. You can be immensely proud and humble at the same time. Humble Pride does not entail demanding recognition or harboring conceit for oneself. In contrast, it is pride tempered with a heavy dose of humility and a sense of honor.

In most modern cultures, “honor” is considered an old-fashioned word. However, it remains highly relevant for startups. Recruit people for your adVenture who view winning and losing a matter of personal honor.

Let Harry Go

Every organization, no matter how carefully it vets its employees, will be infiltrated by folks like Harry. These fair-weather workers are productive contributors when the team is winning. However, they flinch at the first major bump in the road and are apt to seek greener pastures when the adVenture’s future is less than certain. Not content to depart on their own, they often first attempt to stir up dissent among their coworkers as a means of validating their own misgivings.

Chris was wise to allow Harry to leave with his honor intact. If someone wants to bail on your adVenture, let them go with a smile on your face and a sincere “Best wishes” on your lips. Do not demonize “Wantrepreneurs” like Harry, as it could undermine your credibility with your remaining employees, especially Harry’s close compatriots. By allowing “Harrys” to leave your adVenture without rancor or ill will, you will reinforce your organization’s Humble Pride.

If your “Harry” is intimidated or otherwise encouraged to remain at your adVenture, his fears and lack of security in his own abilities will act as a cancer in your organization. He will quietly subvert your company’s mission and most importantly, if allowed to remain unchecked, they will eventually erode your company’s Humble Pride.

Blame Game – Success Through Failure

Employees with Humble Pride internalize their failures and setbacks. Such people are not satisfied by externalizing their defeats. They realize that failure is absolute and that the exercise of assigning fault is time ill spent. Instead, Humble and Proud employees attempt to determine went wrong in order to avoid a similar outcome in the future. For instance, if a sale is lost to a competitor, Humble and Proud employees examine what they did wrong in the sales process, rather than deriding the lost customer or alleging that a competitor beat them by nefarious means. Humble Pride employees do not externalize failures by blaming others.

As noted in Competitive Sleuthing, it is important to gather the relevant facts regarding your company’s failures. This process often involves going outside of your organization and listening to unpleasant feedback. When doing this, it is important to internalize the feedback and realize that if your company fails in some way, the most important issue is to identify and rectify the source of the failure, rather than to search for someone or something to pin the blame on. Organizations that do not have the appropriate level of Humble Pride will be ineffective in evaluating the root cause of failures.

Big Dumb Companies (BDC’s) frequently play the Blame Game. The types of people attracted to BDC’s often prefer sharing the blame to focusing on addressing the underlying issues which resulted in the problem. Effective Startups do not have time to affix blame; rather, they focus their limited resources on fixing the problems at hand.

Honest Lee

Employees like Lee, who “owe something to themselves,” and Honest, whose overriding desire to win will not allow anyone to tell him to “run,” are ideal startup employees. Such employees will not shrink from each startup crisis because they measure their personal success by the adVenture’s ultimate success. In his book, The Map of Innovation, DoubleClick Founder Kevin O’Connor notes that he always strives to hire winners because, “Winners fight until the end…they keep going until they find a solution…” Winners like Honest and Lee take pride in winning and they simply do not accept losing, as it is a matter of honor.

Honest exemplifies other characteristics that are well suited to an entrepreneurial environment, including:

  • Contemplative - Honest has very few lines in the entire movie, yet he still plays a key role in the team’s success. When he does speak, his teammates listen. As noted in Listen, it is often most impactful to choose your words wisely, rather than to opine upon every issue encountered by the adVenture.
  • Confident – Honest never displays fear, anxiety or stress. Even when his life hangs in the balance, his facial expressions remain stoic. An unemotional demeanor can be helpful in reassuring the rest of the team in times of stress. Honest understands that “Sometimes it is best to keep your gun in its holster.” Just as airline passengers look to flight attendants to assess whether or not they should be worried about the latest round of turbulence, Honest serves as the team’s reassuring bellwether.
  • Respected – Despite his lack of social graces, Honest is highly respected by all members of the team, peers, subordinates and superiors alike. Although he is quiet, he is not unfriendly. Honest does not shy away from being a team member; he is not a loner, just a quiet participant.
  • Dependable – Honest is like a luxury car. He can go 100,000 miles between check-ups. He is also highly loyal and never questions the Core Team’s authority, even when he has doubts about the company’s direction. Because of this, you must be careful to assess any divergence between Honest’s values and those of the company, as he is apt to depart from the team before he will challenge such a divergence.
  • Autonomous – Honest needs little tactical direction and zero emotional stroking. However, the very strength by which they hold their values can cause such employees to act unilaterally. This is characterized in Honest’s desire to return to town, irrespective of the rest of the team’s decision. As Lex Sisney, Co-Founder and former CEO and Chairman of Commission Junction points out in his book Ready for Enlightenment? Values are “a way of being.” They are not for sale and they cannot be taken away from you. You might be able to take Honest’s guns away from him, but you can never take away his humility and pride.

It is important to recognize such characteristics, as employees like Honest are not apt to give stellar interview performances. Their dispassionate nature and natural confidence can easily be misread as aloofness, arrogance or even a lack of intelligence.

Humble Origins

J.W., my paternal grandfather, had three goals in life: to own a radio, to own a bicycle, and for his son to earn a college degree. He scored on all three counts, and then some.

Humble goals, without a doubt. However, for a man orphaned in central Texas during the early 1900s, who spent much of his youth picking cotton, such aspirations seemed lofty to the Frontier Grandparents who raised him.

At the depth of the Depression, J.W. landed a job at a gas station in Eastland, Texas. Despite the bleak surroundings and his bleaker future, one can clearly see the pride with which J.W. wore his gas station uniform.

The name of the gas station where my grandfather worked? Humble.

If you hire Humble and Proud employees like J.W., Honest and Lee, you will never have to worry about a competitor, customer, disgruntled employee, acquirer or supplier telling your adVenture to “run.”


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Copyright © 2007-2009 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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