A Race To The Bottom

Finding purpose through vulnerability.

Sprinting came naturally to me. I won from the moment I set foot on a track.

I beat the guys who were supposed to be the fastest, time and time again.

“Oh that’s ‘blah blah’ you’ll never beat him, Sam. He’s too fast.” I beat all of them, every single time.

Until, one day, I didn’t anymore.

I was a national and regional age group 100 metre champion, had been accepted to the Sports Institute of Otago alongside All Blacks and NZ cricketers, hadn’t lost a 100m race in years, had a personal best of 10.67 second and ……. I lost.

Ok, so it’s a loss…. No big deal, right? Just bounce back, work hard and double down on my training.

That didn’t do it.

My mind was so conditioned to being a natural, that I was a winner, that the thought of losing was inconceivable. Being the fastest was so entwined in my persona that the mere thought of that not being true sent me into a tailspin.

USA Basketball, Hall of Fame Coach John Wooden said:

“…ability can take you to the top but it takes character to keep you there………”

I had all the ability and absolutely no character. The fixed mindset was so entrenched in me that a loss wasn’t just one loss, it was an utter system failure.

Little did I know, the tailspin was just beginning.

This loss and attempting to rationalise it with the adoption of an, “I don’t give a f**k attitude” was to set the tone for the next 17 years of my life.

I drank, I used drugs, I used people, I ran away from responsibility, from my family and friends – really anything that had ties with a world that I felt deeply ashamed of.

I still held down great jobs and I’ve been lucky in my life to be surrounded by people who (regardless of your religious views) can only be described as angels. They saw promise in me and continued to give me opportunity, while I continued to systematically destroy myself from the inside out.

Until, one day, someone took a stand.

An employer, who had given me a brilliant job heading up a large manufacturing business across the UK and EU, heard about my drinking and drug-taking exploits and fired me. The facade of the life I had built was finally falling away.

I’d reached the jumping off place and stood at a point where I had two choices.

One, continue to hide my problems and with that, continue my downward trajectory. Or two, face my fear, sort my shit out and confront my issues.

Thankfully, I chose the latter. I’m now comfortable calling myself an addict and alcoholic and am several years clear of that behaviour.

However, one of the biggest surprises was yet to come.

In a lecture on High Performing Teams in 2018, I was asked to share something deeply personal.

“Yea, no bloody way” was my first instinct. “No way am I telling a bunch of strangers about my drinking issues, that’s my business”.

But, something told me it was safe to press on. For once I threw caution to the wind and I shared.

What followed was life-changing for me.

The people in the class stopped. They listened intently. They didn’t judge. After I’d shared, many of them came up to me and thanked me for sharing. Their attitude toward me had changed and I could see it in their faces.

I now know what that difference was: they trusted me.

I’d been brave, I’d shared deeply and I had built trust. I was blown away.

Being vulnerable creates trust and safety which for leaders, can have a huge impact on their team. With safety and trust, team members can debate passionately, raise ideas and concerns, in the comfort of knowing that it’s all part of a bigger purpose and betterment of the team.

I now dedicate my life to helping young leaders and teams perform. But one of the key components to any of the work I do is to assist others to be more vulnerable and share more openly. And the best thing about this? It actually creates successful businesses.

The Power of Vulnerability

Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown explains that while we all have problems and we all struggle with areas of work and life, sharing them is not a sign of weakness but actually an incredibly powerful way to build trust.

I’ve seen first-hand, through my own personal struggles, that I build trust with the people I share them with. I had always assumed that my problems were my problems and I shouldn’t share them. But I had that belief turned on its head, time and time again, once I started sharing.

How to be vulnerable

The mistake I made initially is one which many do – to assume that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it can be highly powerful, if we’re able to take ownership of it.

Here are three ways a leader can take ownership of vulnerability:

  1. Own your role

Leaders can often confuse their role as being the expert across all areas of the business. But a leader’s role is to surround themselves with experts and be the one who makes the jobs of those experts pleasurable.

One way to own vulnerability is to become comfortable in not knowing and showing you don’t have all the answers. It can be as simple as one sentence:

“I don’t know, do you?”

This removes the ‘god complex’ and changes your mindset from ‘know-it-all’ to ‘student of life’. Doing so empowers those around you and makes it clear that it’s OK not to have all the answers, know everything or be perfect.

  1. Own uncertainty

Every business goes through ups and downs, challenges and uncertainties. In those more difficult times, leaders can easily jump straight to one extreme or another – either over-optimism and pretence, or showing a lack of belief or control to lower staff confidence.

Finding a middle ground between the two requires vulnerability.

That vulnerability could be admitting that you don’t know everything and then calling on the experts around you to lift the business through uncertainty. Stepping up, putting yourself in the firing line also takes courage. When the cards are against you, being willing to show vulnerability through courage will also build confidence in your team.

  1. Own your struggles

Once you start introducing this mindset to your team you can begin to go a little deeper and if you’re up for it, trying the exercise below can have powerful effects across the team and business.

Listed below are 3 questions for a leader to use to encourage group vulnerability, strengthen relationships and with that, build trust. This should be done in a group, where people take turns to answer; either online or in person.

Prior to trying it, you’ll need to create a safe space by letting people know you have an activity which you’d like to try, giving them an overview and then as the leader, going first – setting the tone for how the meeting can continue.

I’ve seen this work just as well in teams who have been together years, as it does in brand new teams. It’s just about being a bit brave.

And finally, you don’t need to make this activity mandatory. If anyone in your team has recently had a bereavement or feels as though they are in a particularly vulnerable mental state, there is absolutely no shame in sitting this one out.

However, if you feel like you can do it, then I encourage you to take the leap.

The questions are:

  1. What are you finding really challenging at work right now?
  2. What are you finding really challenging in your life right now?
  3. What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever been through in your life?

Change takes time

These are big shifts for many teams, so don’t feel bad if you take your time implementing them. Systemic change toward vulnerability will take time.

Vulnerability is a muscle, the more we work it out, the better we become at it

I now dedicate my life to helping leadership teams open up and talk more honestly, to create safe, productive, high performance environments.

If you’d like to discuss any of the points in more detail, or get some assistance, feel free to reach out to me directly on sam@braverleaders.com