The Hazards of Recognition

Aaron P. Graft

April 7, 2014

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to lay out my personal feelings about recognition. More than any other post I have written for this blog, this one reflects my personal perspective and not the thoughts, intentions, plans or strategies of any corporation, business or company with which I am associated. It is solely my opinion.

Growing up, I loved sports. I loved the challenge and the thrill of winning. While I was no standout athlete, I did experience enough personal success to learn at a young age that it feels great to be singled out for recognition. I remember a high school baseball tournament when I was hitting the ball really well, and at the end of the tournament, I was named to the “All-Tournament Team.” One of my teammates congratulated me for that award and I responded with some generic coach-speak of being “glad to help out my team.” What I was really thinking was: “Yeah, I played really well and deserved to be noticed.”

Fast forward 18 years when I learn that some of my colleagues nominated me for the Dallas Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 recognition program. I read about the award: “The Dallas Business Journal is seeking highly accomplished executives and entrepreneurs . . . We are looking for executives who really shine — innovators, deal makers, influential leaders who excel in their respective companies and industries and show dynamic leadership in their communities.” It sounded like an All-Tournament Team to me. I also know that some of my mentors have won this award in the past — how great would it be to see my name among previous award recipients whom I hold in such high regard?

The differences between me as a 36 year-old CEO and an 18 year-old high school baseball player are noticeable in many ways, but remarkably absent in others. Here’s my confession: I still want it to be about me. If it is all about me and Triumph does well, I can feel good about myself. When Triumph is outperforming its peers, I can take personal pride in our accomplishments. That is exhilarating for a season, but the inflating effect it often has on my ego is hazardous.

The only thing I know of that will cure an inflated ego is a healthy dose of reality. My grasp of reality is rooted in my Christian faith. The term “Christian faith” is used many different ways, so let me be clear about what I mean: I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he died on a cross for the sins of the world, and that believing in him is the basis of all hope. Following him governs how I handle everything in my life both professionally and personally.

The Bible tells me that left to my own devices, I am selfish and prone to find my significance in success and in what others think of me. My own experience confirms that this is true. The Bible also tells me to “[d]o nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” When it says “nothing,” I believe it means exactly what it says. Thus, I have to make a supreme effort as the leader of Triumph to go against my selfish nature in order to be a servant leader and to prioritize the success of our team members, investors, and customers over my own personal agenda. I don’t do it perfectly, but by God’s grace, I do it better today than I ever have in the past. My ambition is to be a leader who runs to the frontlines when the battle is raging, and then quietly slips to the back when the medals are handed out.

I have met a few people in my life who consistently live this way and seem genuinely selfless and unaffected by opinions of others, but I am not naturally that person. The good news is that God has transformed me greatly in this area over the last 18 years. The bad news is that I still have a long way to go.

My resolve in this matter has been tested by being named a recipient of the 40 Under 40 award by the Dallas Business Journal. Believe me when I say that I am honored to be included in such reputable company, but I am also reluctant. I know myself, which means I know that the last thing I need to see is my name in print. I often tell our team, “Triumph is not about me.” I say that for two reasons. First, Triumph has 400+ team members, 200+ investors, and thousands of customers across several states. It has grown to be much bigger than any one individual. Second, I say it because I need to hear it. I need to be reminded. While I like recognition as much as anybody, I have found that being a fan of myself is an empty way to live. Although I don’t do it perfectly, I have found much greater satisfaction in following Jesus Christ’s example of serving others.

Thus, handling this award well means directing the recognition away from me personally. If the award is based on what Triumph has accomplished, then let’s celebrate what our team has done and is doing: In 2013, Triumph was honored as one of the Dallas Business Journal’s Best Places to Work. Our Advance Business Capital team is now servicing 57% more clients than 15 months ago. Triumph Commercial Finance has increased the size of its loan portfolio more than 900% in its first full year of operations. Triumph Savings Bank’s operations and corporate teams just passed a rigorous regulatory exam with outstanding results. I could share so much more about all the amazing things our team is accomplishing, but suffice it to say, no one person does all of this. We are indeed a team and the recognition belongs to everyone.

If this recognition is about a person, then I want to celebrate the greatest person under 40 who ever lived. His name is Jesus and having a personal relationship with him changes everything. Whatever relational capital or influence I have as a result of receiving this award or Triumph’s accomplishments, I intend to spend it all celebrating the Triumph team and unashamedly declaring to others that nothing in life is as important as knowing and following Jesus Christ. I am grateful for the opportunity to do that today and excited for the future.

P.S. It’s appropriate here to point out that my Christian faith does not make Triumph a Christian company. We have team members at all levels of our organization who do not share my worldview. More than that, I do not think that “Christian companies” exist. Being a Christian depends upon an individual commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Only people can do that, not companies. You can find the criteria to join our Triumph team, and a person’s perspective on faith matters does not come into the equation, either for hiring or advancement. I have found (and one of the reasons I have written this post) that the Christian values of servant leadership, humility and integrity resonate universally, which is why we work so hard at maintaining that in Triumph’s corporate culture.