Shit was collapsing around me.
A key team member had just resigned, our product was struggling with stability issues and we were running out of cash. Our runway to keep the business alive was shrinking fast.
And we were tired. Really tired of the hustle, not having answers, and not having money to pay the bills.
And yet, when a good friend asked me how things were going, I smiled, and I said things were going really well. I was loving what I was doing, and we were starting to make a real impact.
When a mentor asked me how things were going I smiled, and I said that we were growing. Our product was improving, and that we had an exciting strategy in place for the coming year.
When an investor asked me how things were going I smiled, and I said we were kicking ass. We’d finally built our core product, customer feedback was positive, and we’d just signed a new big customer.
All of this was true, and yet at the same time it wasn’t.
Shit was collapsing around our team.
And because no-one else knew about the challenges I was facing, no-one else could help. I was trying to do it all alone.
My Limiting Beliefs About Leadership
I believed that to bring on customers and investors and ensure we would survive as an organization, we needed to present a united front to the world that showed that we knew what we were doing. That we had the answers, that we were kicking ass and that we were growing.
It was the stiff upper lip approach to leadership.
I believed great leadership was about holding down the fort when the world was collapsing around you. That the real test of leadership was one’s ability to do a great job while everything around is collapsing, and to then emerge successful, without anyone else (including your team) knowing that for a moment (or more) everything just about fell apart.
I believed that I couldn’t show my team that I didn’t know the answers and was struggling. Because then they would lose confidence in our ability to overcome and quit.
It was also driven by my ego and my desire to appear a competent, successful entrepreneur and leader. I didn’t want to admit to the people around me, and the world that in fact I didn’t know what I was doing. That I was making it up as I went.
It turns out this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Competition vs Connection
Without realising, my beliefs around leadership were creating competition instead of connection in my life and limiting my capacity as a leader.
Tony Robbins in a fascinating podcast called ‘Why We Do What We Do’ shares that as humans we have a fundamental human need for love and connection. This isn’t just personal development hype – it’s backed by science.
Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect reveals based on his research that our need for connection is even more fundamental than our need for food, water and shelter! Pretty crazy right? This means we will put our physical needs at risk due to our desire to connect with other people.
Connecting with other people is really important and it turns out that how we respond to the question, ‘How are you going?‘ has huge implications in the quality of connections we make with other people.
Tony Robbins in ‘Why We Do What We Do’, shares that when someone asks you the question, “How are you going?” and you respond, as I did when friends, mentors, and investors asked me by saying “Everything is great!” it creates competition instead of connection.
When you say, “Everything is great”, our natural inclination is to compete, and ‘keep up with the Joneses’.
If everything is great for someone else, it’s difficult for us to admit and share with that person that maybe everything isn’t great in our own life. So instead, we compete and share how AMAZING our life is (even if everything is going to shit).
A growth opportunity becomes two idiots sitting at a table, sipping coffees, grinning stupidly as they talk about how awesome their life is while sitting on a pile of problems they are pretending don’t exist.
Why do we compete in these situations?
According to Abraham Tesser, a University of Georgia social psychology professor, when someone close to us outperforms us in a task relevant to us, it often threatens our self-esteem. The more relevant the task is, the greater the threat we feel. As a result, when our self-esteem is threatened, we compete to protect our ego and sense of self.
So without realising, every time a friend, mentor, or investor asked me ‘How are you going?’ and I responded with ‘Everything is great!’ I was creating a situation of competition. I was threatening the other person’s self-esteem which was preventing us from really connecting.
Even if they wanted to help me with the challenges I was facing, my response prevented them from being able to do so as it triggered their natural inclination to compete.
And this meant that I was on my own. I didn’t have the answers, and at this critical time when I needed insights, knowledge and wisdom from others, my own actions was preventing this from occurring.
How can we create connection in our life?
Arthur Aron, a social psychologist and director of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University conducted a groundbreaking study in 1997 in an attempt to answer this question.
Aron and his research team paired up students who were strangers, and gave each pair of students 45 minutes to ask each other a series of questions.
50% of the pairs were given questions that were shallow and factual that stimulated small talk (e.g. What’s your favourite holiday? What’s your favourite TV show?). We’ll call these guys Group A.
50% of the pairs were given questions that started off as factual, but gradually became deeper and more meaningful. These questions were designed to encourage the pairs to be vulnerable with each other. (e.g. When was the last time you cried in front of someone else? What is the role of love in your life?). The final question they had to ask each other was “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?” We’ll call these guys Group B.
At the end of the 45 minute conversation, Aron asked the participants to rate how close they felt to their conversation partner.
Can you guess the results?
Pairs from the 2nd group, Group B formed much deeper bonds and many of these participants started lasting friendships.
But perhaps what is more interesting is that Aron also surveyed a broad cross section of students who were NOT involved in the experiment and also asked them to rate how close they felt to the CLOSEST person in their life. Let’s call these guys Group C.
Aron then compared these scores of Group C with the rating of the study participants who had asked each other the deeper questions, Group B.
What was incredible was that the intensity of the bonds for Group B at the end of the 45 minute conversation rated CLOSER than the CLOSEST relationships in the lives of 30% of similar students in Group C.
Think about how crazy this is…
A 45 minute conversation between strangers created a connection that that was perceived as closer than the closest connection with someone people had known for years!
So how do we create connection in our life?
Vulnerability Creates Connection
As Tesser and Aron’s research reveals, it turns out that (perhaps somewhat counterintuitively) only presenting an idealised version of ourselves separates us from others.
And this is exactly what I was doing when I responded to the question, “How are you going?”
I was sharing the idealised version of myself, our company and our progress, which was preventing me from connecting with friends, mentors and investors in a way that would empower and enable them to help me!
So how do you create connection?
In Group B in Aron’s study that created powerful connections, Tesser had the students ask and respond to questions that revealed personal things about themselves.
Aron was forcing the students to be vulnerable and to share openly about who they really were as a person, and through this vulnerability the students developed powerful connections with each other.
Or as research and storyteller Brene Brown puts it:
What is Vulnerability?
I was chatting with my co-founder Yohan over dinner recently (over some fantastic take-home from the Moroccan Soup Kitchen) and we began exploring our own respective definitions and understandings of vulnerability.
My initial gut response was that I felt that displaying vulnerability was about sharing how everything is a mess in your life, how things aren’t perfect.
I felt that being vulnerable was therefore about being negative, complaining, whinging, focusing on the things that weren’t working, and being ungrateful.
And I didn’t like this at all.
I’m a big believer in Stoic philosophy. Of the fact that in ‘every disadvantage lies the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit’ (thanks Napoleon Hill). I believe we always need to seek the positive in our life, be grateful for what we have, and that we speak into our life our own reality – so our language and words are critically important.
I realised it was a core reason (outside of my beliefs around leadership, and my desire to appear competent) why when I was asked the question “How are you going?‘” that even if things weren’t great, that I would focus on the positive in my life.
When I looked up vulnerability in the dictionary, I got the following…
“Exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed”…
It’s easy to see why ‘being vulnerable’ is something we avoid!
Yohan however had a very different understanding of what it meant to be vulnerable.
Yohan’s definition was:
Being vulnerable is trusting other people enough to put yourself in a position where you can be hurt by them”
So while the possibility of being hurt was still part of Yohan’s definition of vulnerability, what was wonderful was that the focus and core of what vulnerability was to him was about trusting other people.
Trusting other people to accept you for who you are. Without the need to posture, act, or attempt to be perfect.
And that’s when I realised that my stiff upper lip approach to leadership was built on a belief that I couldn’t trust other people.
That if I revealed the real challenges we were having, I couldn’t trust them to embrace me for who I was and for who we were as an organisation and stay with us as customers, team members and investors.
Being Vulnerable is All About Trust
Being vulnerable therefore isn’t about being negative, and focusing on all the problems in your life.
Being vulnerable is simply about trusting people enough to give them an honest answer when they ask you, ‘How are you going?’
Yes, something this might mean that we share a story that focuses on the problems and negatives in your life. But it can also mean that you share honestly the love you feel about something and someone.
It’s a continuum of positive, neutral and negative. But it all comes from a position of trusting the other person to be 100% yourself.
What happens when we are vulnerable?
As Aron’s study reveals, when we are vulnerable we build more powerful deeper connections with the people around us.
Instead of competing with you, your friends, family, team members, mentors and investors instead want to help you!
You see, it turns out we’re hardwired to want to help other people and when we are vulnerable and share honestly how we are going, it triggers this wiring in the people around you.
I know this to be true for myself. I LOVE to help other people and I love when people share with me honestly how they are going – warts and all.
Because it gives me an opportunity to contribute and help them. And when I help someone I feel valued for doing so.
Great Leaders are Vulnerable Leaders
So while it might seem that when shit gets hard the best approach is batten down the hatches and to present a perfect image that you’ve got everything under control this is perhaps counter-intuitively the worst thing you can do.
It’s when shit gets hard that you need help the most, and as I’ve found, the stiff upper lip approach just results in you being alone, without the insight, wisdom, and support you need from others to move forward.
Great leadership isn’t about doing it alone, and bearing all the burdens yourself.
It’s about trusting other people enough to be honest about life and how things are really going (warts and all) and through this vulnerability, giving people the opportunity to contribute and to feel valued.
Case Study of Vulnerable Leadership
In 2011 when Queensland, Australia suffered devastating floods that killed 38 people, impacted 200,000 people and caused $2.38BN in damage, the then Premier Anna Bligh took to television for a state wide flood briefing.
In the face of such a catastrophe, prevailing wisdom would have suggested that Premier Bligh present a composed image, one that radiated confidence, and certainty to give people hope for the future. In fact, this is exactly what Bligh’s team advised her to do before walking into the room for the teleconference.
Instead, Premier Bligh cried on national television, speaking from her heart about how she felt in the face of the damage, destruction and loss of life suffered:
“As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. [Premier Bligh began crying at this point]
We are Queenslanders.
We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border.
We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.”
In her autobiography, Bligh writes,
In a crisis, people look for strength; they need it like food and water to sustain them. I left the media room certain I had failed the task, certain that my tears and choking voice had crush people’s confidence, not lifted it.
To my my mind, I had cried at the worst possible moment. Now, when people most needed confirmation of my strength, of my belief in myself and in them, I had fallen short.”
And yet, the response from Queenslanders was incredible (and for Premier Bligh completely surprising).
In the face of such vulnerability, the state of Queensland pulled together behind Premier Bligh, united to rebuild a broken state. Each person felt as though they could contribute to help and that their contribution was valued and important. It led to the creation of the ‘Mud Army,’ an army of volunteers, of friends and strangers working together to repair the damage.
In fact, Premier Bligh’s words had such an impact that they trended worldwide on Twitter, they were printed on T-shirts, inscribed on the walls of sporting clubs, and people even had them tattooed on themselves!
Premier Bligh’s honest words in her moment of vulnerability turned a tragedy into an uplifting experience of profound humanity.
How will you respond?
Not being vulnerable therefore deprives your friends, family, team members, customers, mentors and investors from the incredible opportunity of feeling valued.
When you look at it this way, it’s crazy right?
Why would we deprive our friends, team, and family from the opportunity of feeling valued?
So, the next time you are asked,
“How are you going?”
How will you respond?
Will your response create connection, or competition?
Will you trust the person enough to give them an honest answer?
Further Reading & Resources (for the nerds out there):
- If you’re interested in digging into understanding the research on how we are wired to connect, read Brain Picking’s great summary here.
- Read Arthur Aron’s research on creating connections in more depth here.
- If you want to learn more about vulnerability, Brene Brown’s hit TED talk is a great place to start. Watch it here.
- Listen to Tony Robbin’s talk about creating competition vs connection in his podcast here.
Hey, I’m Rowan. I’m the CEO of Art of Smart Education and I’m on a mission to help 1,000,000 young Australians answer the big question, “What am I going to do with my life when I finish school & how do I get there?”