Transcript below, for those of you who prefer reading over listening!
For the last few weeks, Jeff and I have been talking about the macroeconomic environment that business leaders find themselves in. We spent a session on the rising costs of capital, the demands of talent in the current labor market and how those have evolved over time, and what it takes to actually drive growth in the current environment. With each of those 3 things creating constraints and demands on a business, we’ve been talking about what leaders should do.
These are fairly unprecedented conditions and Jeff generously, and with a lot of sincerity, shared a personal health journey that he’s been going through in our last conversation. He talked about not trying to put a single playbook solution in place – because, as we all know, for many health issues, there isn’t just one right solution – but putting a system in place that would allow him to experiment and learn what enables him to pursue great health despite the challenges that he was facing. That system is something we talk about a lot at Talentism: how do we create a system for continuous learning, and compounding on that learning, for leaders who are trying to do something unprecedented.
We’ll continue that conversation today. But as Jeff and I were just preparing, he mentioned he had something important to bring up, so I’m going to let Jeff take it away.
Thanks Angie. I wanted to start today’s discussion about learning with an apology. As the world now knows, Silicon Valley Bank failed. And its failure caused a massive set of ripple effects and pain throughout a community that I’m a part of, and that I care about deeply. And in thinking about that – and how that affected me, Talentism, and the people we support and care about – I realized that the most important thing I could do after the immediate triage of ensuring we had capital, was to step back and reflect, and understand what part I played in that. Of course I’m a very small person in a very big system, and Silicon Valley Bank is much larger than any particular decision I made – and yet I think it’s important for me to offer a quick reflection.
In 1997, I started my first venture-funded startup. Silicon Valley Bank was the bank we used. They were an incredible resource, and as many people have reflected upon now: back then in particular, no sane banker would speak to you, only Silicon Valley Bank was there to take your deposits and write you a line of credit and be there as a partner for you. Back then, startups were smaller, funding was much harder to come by, cost of capital was much higher, and it was an even more insane act to start a company back then than it is now – although to be clear, it’s still pretty insane. I was there in the relatively early days, using Silicon Valley Bank, depending upon them, and I grew to take them for granted. I grew to take it for granted that they would be there. They became the background noise and expectation that I had of what a startup environment was.
Over 9 years ago, when I started Talentism, many of the early customers that Talentism attracted were funded and supported by Silicon Valley Bank. I’m not sure that Talentism would be here today if Silicon Valley Bank hadn’t been there for them – sometimes I think even more so than the venture capitalists that supported them. I grew a sense of entitlement that Silicon Valley Bank was a part of this community, that it was going to be there to support us – and as with anything that we come to take for granted, I didn’t invest attention into figuring out whether they were managing their capital or risk correctly. I didn’t take into account whether they were well managed overall. I didn’t pay attention to whether they were doing the appropriate things to continue to support the community. And I didn’t do the appropriate things when things got bad. When certain parties caused a run on that bank – whether they believe they were right or not, only they will have to evaluate – they certainly made things riskier for all of us, and I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to help with that situation. I was completely focused on Talentism and our local clients. First, the clients who owed us money, and second, the clients who did their banking there. I wasn’t paying attention to the bigger picture, or standing up for Silicon Valley Bank, or engaging in behaviors that now I think I would have honored myself for. I was much more locally focused. And so with that, I just wanted to start with that apology.
Huh. One of the things we do at Talentism is we recognize when we’re feeling an emotion, and right now I’m feeling surprised, because that’s not where I thought we were headed with today’s conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised if folks reading or listening are feeling the same. What is having you start today with that apology? And I think, listeners might be thinking, Jeff acknowledged he is a small fish in a big system. What has you focusing there?
Last week, we talked about me going through an existential event, and we reflected on that. We talked about how when you’re in that place – when things change radically and your mental model of how the world works becomes upended – you have to turn to learning. You have to learn your way to potential and to success. The thing that all learning starts with is personal responsibility. You can’t learn anything that you don’t own. When I reflect back upon the many founders and investors that I’ve worked with, the single attribute that differentiates the people who have learned successfully versus those who haven’t, is their ability to accept their reality and then seek to change it. And in accepting that reality, the fundamental truth is they have to seek self-acceptance.
What is difficult about me coming on this podcast and apologizing for Silicon Valley Bank is while I’m saying that, every neuron in my brain is telling me that this doesn’t make any sense. Not only am I a small fish in a big pond, I didn’t even bank with Silicon Valley Bank. We’re not financial advisors or investors. We’re outside the capital system. What the hell am I doing, taking responsibility for something around Silicon Valley Bank? It makes no sense.
And yet, it makes sense if I care about being better. It makes sense if I care about meaning. Because I care about the startup community. I care about the people who come to this community to try to unleash their potential – and try to make the world a better place through their products, services, hard work, and dedication. I can’t care about those people or that system if I don’t care about all the parts of it – and Silicon Valley Bank was a critical part of it. I took them as a utility to be taken for granted. And if I don’t see that clearly, and see how and why I was disconnected from that, I can’t learn anything from it. And if I can’t learn anything from it, that was all a waste. Everybody’s pain, suffering, feeling of loss and complete aloneness – that was all for not. So how many people have to suffer for me to take the learning seriously? Hopefully not a lot.
I have to take personal responsibility to start the journey of learning. And when I think about what I’m seeing out there at large – fights that are now inevitably beginning, the finger pointing and “it was the regulators,” “no, it was the venture capitalists”… The one thing I don’t see anybody doing is taking responsibility. And I’m not here passing moral judgment on those people. Of course they’re not taking responsibility. They all see themselves as a small fish in a big pond. Every system is much bigger than the human who exists within it. But until someone takes responsibility, nobody’s going to learn anything. And if we don’t learn anything, we’re not going to get better. And if we don’t get better, we’re not going to unleash our potential. So that’s why I started there. It’s critical. I accept responsibility so I can start the learning.
Wow. There’s a really profound kernel in there. I’m digesting as you speak, and so I want to see if I can break it down for myself, and maybe it’ll be useful for others.
I think what I’m hearing you say is that it’s very easy to look at something that seems big and intractable – where others are involved, and oftentimes it seems like others are bigger players and bear more of the causality – and feel angry or disappointed, and probably also a little helpless because you feel like you’re standing outside of it. And what I’m hearing you say is that, actually the way in – the wedge to be able to do something about it – is to take whatever angle of personal responsibility is available. If you care about it, then there’s some responsibility, at least to learn and understand. And so that first step is in taking responsibility: hey, I’m not outside of it, I’m a part of it. I am causally related to what’s going on. I’m part of a system. I have an impact on that system. In order to be able to take any next step, the first step is responsibility. Responsibility is the opening of a door to learning what’s going on.
Yes, that’s right.
That feels pretty powerful and it’s smacking me between the eyes in relation to some not-so-nice things I’ve said about some governors of some states working with their legislations to pass some laws. Anyhow, that’s another podcast.
Two things. This is really important. First of all, you brought up the concept of helplessness. And second, you brought up the concept of people doing things that other people disagree with. So let’s talk about both those things.
Let’s talk about helplessness. There are times where helplessness is the logical response to what is happening around you. In other words, we are all participants in a system, but also victims of a system that is much bigger than us. I use the word ‘victim’ not in the weak and helpless sense, but in that there are forces acting upon us and against us that are hard and bad for us, and we have no control over them. It’s important to understand when I say personal responsibility, I’m not saying that if you experience racism, the racism is your responsibility – that is not what I’m saying. It’s a racist system and it’s acting upon and against you… And it’s easy to feel helpless in the midst of that. As a matter of fact, that’s probably a sensible reaction to the enormity of that thing.
But what helplessness does is it removes our agency, and our ability to learn and improve. When we feel helpless, we give up. And when we give up, we can’t see the gift or the benefit that’s being delivered to us inside of what’s happening. Sometimes, it takes a long search to figure out what that benefit is. When I got my health diagnosis, I did not walk out of the doctor’s office and say, thank goodness, I can’t believe I got that gift. I think I got there a week later, intellectually – just because I’ve tried to habituate this way of thinking for 50 years. And it took maybe 3 months more to actually start to feel that, and I was practicing and building this system to feel like, wow there was a real gift in here. But I don’t wake up every day thanking whatever or whoever may exist that I got diabetes. Diabetes sucks. Having to worry every day about what I eat, sucks. Having that act upon me, sucks. Wanting to go back to my parents and say, genetically, why did you give this to me or why’d you raise me in a few food environment where I built these habits and prize these foods… There are so many people I want to blame for what happened to me. I get that, of course.
We are evolutionarily designed to have that feeling. It makes sense to have that feeling. But the thing I described in the podcast last week is: I had to say, okay, I can own this – I can’t own everything that happened in my past because I didn’t do everything that happened to me in the past; and I can’t own this whole health system; I didn’t put a McDonald’s on the corner, and I didn’t bring me to McDonald’s at the age of 12 and teach me that having a Big Mac was a reward – I didn’t do any of that stuff. But that’s just the system. That’s just what’s happening around me, and I can’t let that system rob me of agency and a commitment to improve. And once I took that commitment to improve, and to get what I could out of this so that I could use that as fuel for improvement and and getting better, things turned around. And that comes from personal responsibility.
The second thing you said about the governors… Yeah, listen, there are people in the world who have very different opinions about what should happen. In what values to have, and what is right and wrong, etc. But the much, much bigger problem in the world is that people feel lost and afraid and confused. And they don’t get help, and they don’t feel connection, except from the people who are hurt and confused for the same reason. And they get together, and they form a little certainty pod, and in that certainty pod, they get a self-righteous boost that then enables them to go out and attack others. And so we start to form us-versus-them coalitions and warring factions.
I can have compassion and understanding for people I bitterly disagree with. It’s okay. I find a path to success when I take personal responsibility for my reaction to what they’re doing – not responsibility for what they’re doing, and not responsibility for how that hurts others, because that’s their gig, that’s not mine.
There is a beautiful TED Talk given by a woman who had been raised in the Westboro Baptist Church – the famous church that shows up with hate-filled placards at funerals of veterans and in other places. And they are the epitome of hate. When you think of the public and proud epitome of hate, the Westboro Baptist Church has to be right up there. This woman’s father was the leader of that church, and she grew up in that church. And she talked about how she believed so passionately in everything they said. Of course she did. She was raised in that environment. She had no exposure to contradictory information or other points of view. And every time someone came and told her that she was bad, she was evil, and she was what was wrong in the world, it further strengthened her resolve to commit to those belief systems. And the TED Talk is her saying, hey listen, I’m now outside that system. I can see clearly that what Westboro Baptist Church does is hate-filled, wrong, and terrible. I couldn’t see it then, but I can see it now. How did that change happen? How did she deal with that? She dealt with that because people had compassion to continue to have a conversation with her. I don’t think we have to fully understand the values and and points of view of everybody. But if you truly care not just about winning, but about achieving the potential of what we can do together, then compassion and openness is approach. It’s by far the most effective means of winning the long-term debate. And that has to start with personal responsibility.
I talk to leaders about this all the time: it’s okay to be scared. Not to be a total Star Wars Geek here, but fear leads to hate. Fear leads to anger leads to hate. Fear is what causes the separation between us – not a clear understanding of the differences between us, but a fear that what the other person represents will hurt us, limit us, and affect us negatively in some way. That fear becomes the start of the division, because the fear is confusion. So you have to say: Hey listen, I’m afraid. This scares the shit out of me. It’s okay to say that, because in saying that, you equip yourself with the agency to do something about it. Whereas if you say: That person sucks. Screw them. I hate them – what are you going to do about that? You’re not going to change them with that attitude. You’re not going to do anything to make anything better. You’re just going to gather with other people who feel like you do, and you’re going to get each other really ginned up that you’re right and they’re wrong. And meanwhile, the problem gets worse.
I understand why that’s comforting, and why we need that affinity. I’m not judging it. I’m saying: if you care about potential, if you care about big and profound issues, if you care about learning and figuring out how to make it better… You have to start with you, and you have to start with your personal responsibility.
What’s really landing for me, Jeff, is: in moments where an individual might feel that they’re looking out and experiencing systemic bias, and feel that it’s outside of them and is too hard to change – or they’re looking at bad actors, people whose intentions they just can’t fathom… It can feel frustrating, it can feel isolating, and it can feel like, how could I ever solve this problem? I can’t change something bigger than me. I can’t build a bridge to that person because of what they are like. And the object of both of those statements is outside of the individual who’s having that feeling of isolation, hopelessness, frustration, or disgust. How could I fix the system, or how could I build a bridge to that person? And I think what you’re saying here is: of course, you can’t change a system, and you can’t change somebody else who’s not you, so the only thing that leaves is you yourself. And so if that’s the case, then where’s the place to go to? It can feel so counterintuitive in a moment of frustration or anger or despair to try and go to compassion.
I actually experience this with my clients so often. Of course not talking about the biggest issues that plague our society, but talking about their own experiences on their teams. CEOs with members of their executive teams thinking to themselves, how could I fix this problem? The person sitting across from me isn’t making any sense. They don’t think about it the way I think about it. And so often it comes back to, well, okay, how could I try and understand them? How could I come from a place where I seek to be more open minded about what’s happening to them? And what’s happening to them because I happen to be their boss? So anyhow, I appreciate your framing of this, and I’ll throw it back over to you.
Let’s make that pivot onto work. I know this sounds like very grand, Buddhist-inspired thinking. To me, it’s the most practical path to excellence and to becoming better. Now let’s talk about why. Let’s take a client situation I recently went through, talking to a startup founder CEO. The person – let’s call them Janice, that’s not their name – Janice says to me: You know, my Chief Marketing Officer, Pete, he really is terrible at his work. He’s really awful.
And I said: Really? Tell me why.
She said: Well, he’s late on everything. He doesn’t get in sync with me.
Janice had this litany of what I’d call second order types of things – like you’re confused in an interaction and then you start thinking this is why that interaction is bad.
I said: Okay, let’s assume for a minute that Pete is terrible. What can you do about it?
She said: Well, I’m going to have to keep Pete around for 3 months while I start a search in quiet, and then eventually I have to let Pete know, but I’m probably have to pay him a fair amount of money to have him stick around so he can do the transition to the new CMO. And then I’m probably going to have to pay him pretty well because he’s a big name in the marketing world, etc.
I said: Okay, let’s add up all that money. What’s all that money together? What’s that budget?
We went through it, and let’s say it’s $500,000 – that wasn’t the number but let’s say it is.
I said: Now let’s talk about the attention. Your attention is the most valuable thing you’ve got. Where you point your attention is where the company goes. And it sounds like these interactions with Pete are stealing your attention. Every time you talk about Pete, it’s an hour of our conversations that are lost, and that hour is 1 of 168 you have in a week to achieve your goals, improve yourself, and move the company forward. So this is expensive. How many hours do you think we’re going to be in Pete-land before he leaves?
We added it up and is was several hundred.
I said: Okay, so several hundred units of the most valuable resource you have and $500,000. Wow, this is expensive.
She said: Yeah, it’s terrible. Terrible.
I said: Why do you think you got to this spot
She said: Well, I trusted other people. They told me Pete was good. He’s not really good. We were growing so fast and my investors were all over me, that I had to move faster to the next round, and they wouldn’t have confidence in me if I didn’t hire a CMO. I just was caught up in the situation, and you know, let’s just face it, I didn’t do a good job but I was under all these pressures.
I said: Okay, so what have you learned?
She said: Well, money’s tighter now, and so I just have to be a lot more careful about how I hire.
I said: Okay, careful in what ways?
She said: I just have to spend more time with them. I have to figure out things ahead of time, etc.
I said: So let me get this straight. You made a mistake. You’re confident it’s a mistake. That mistake has already cost you a lot. Lost productivity, attention, etc. In the future it’s going to cost you half a million dollars and several hundred hours of your attention, and the only value you got out of all of that was you learned that you have to do this better next time, take more time, ask more questions.
She said: Yes.
I said: Okay, so now I think we got that picture. Would it surprise you that I know Pete a little bit?
She said: No. I know you know a lot of our executive team. You work with our executive team.
I said: Yeah. Would it surprise you to know that Pete has recently lost a family member?
She said: Yeah, that would surprise me.
I said: It seems to me, you’ve been talking to me about 5, 6 weeks about Pete’s performance. It turns out that actually is the period of time in which Pete’s been struggling with this – been struggling with this person with a health issue towards the end of their life, and then lost this person. Did you know that?
She said: No. No, actually I didn’t.
I said: Have you ever suffered a loss of that kind?
She said: Yeah, actually I have.
I said: What was your performance like during that period of time?
She said: It was terrible. I couldn’t pay attention to anything. I was completely lost during that time.
I said: Okay, and how did the people around you react to that?
She said: Well actually it was really lovely. They gave me a lot of grace. They gave me a lot of space.
I said: Pete, went through a terrible personal situation. And while going through a terrible personal situation, was in a hole, afraid to communicate to you, and his performance dipped as a result. And that is leading you to a bunch of false conclusions about his role fit, and his capacity for performance. When really the root of this is: you’re a bad manager. You weren’t sensing what was really going on. You weren’t asking any questions about what was behind why Pete was struggling. You put more pressure on him when things started to drop. You didn’t ask questions to investigate. So which is more likely: that Pete over the last 6 weeks became so bad that it’s worth half a million dollars and 300 hours of your time, and ongoing conflict, and your bad performance because now you’re distracted by Pete – or that over the last 6 weeks, you just failed Pete as a manager? Which is the better path to learning?
She said: Well, clearly it’s the manager.
I said: How much time is it going to take you to fix this?
She said: I don’t know.
I said: I’ll tell you. It’ll take you 1 hour and $0 to fix this. You have to sit down with Pete and take responsibility for being a bad manager. And you have to say, Pete, I realize I haven’t been telling you I’m afraid. I’m afraid because you’re a critical member of this team, and I’ve seen your performance drop the last 6 weeks, that confused me, that frightened me. And rather than sitting down and talking with you and asking if you were okay and what was going on, I developed all sorts of narratives about who you are, and what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. And during that time, because I developed those narratives, and therefore those mental models, I started treating you differently, and as I treated you differently, I started excluding you from things, I started turning up the intensity on you in ways that I’m sure weren’t helpful, and I can only imagine that the last 6 weeks have been miserable. Pete, I’m so sorry. What’s been going on? Because even apart from that, I think you’ve been struggling, I’d love to understand why. Just say that.
She took that advice. They had a beautiful meeting. Pete’s performance over the next few weeks – we track these things through our system – went up. Of course it went up. Pete was in fear, he was in confusion, he was lost. All he needed was someone to say: I want to understand. That is literally a cost-free exercise, but this CEO was willing to spend half a million bucks and 300 hours of their time to avoid that conversation.
Setting ourselves up in opposition to others, buying into our own narratives about good and bad, believing that other people are against us is inefficient. It’s ineffective. And if you really care about learning, about preserving capital, and about making things better when you have a need for talent, a need for growth, and a need for capital preservation, it’s time to understand that personal responsibility starts with you and it’s the shortest path to learning.
Jeff, that’s really powerful. As you were speaking, one of the things I was trying to do is put myself in the position of some of my clients who might be listening, and I found myself thinking: well, this story is extenuating circumstances, Pete had a death in the family. In my circumstances, it’s not about somebody’s performance dropping temporarily because they’re dealing with a difficult personal situation. In my circumstances, it’s actually because I have underperforming leaders.
And it raised for me a client who’s working through this right now. I’ll share the anecdote because I think it might help and it might compound the point for folks. She is a founder of a large, growing company. And finds herself in a position where, in order to expand, she needs to hire folks who can move the company into new markets. And she’s really struggling to hire people who can do something she hasn’t done before. People who operate differently than she does. And one of the things she’s been telling herself is: When we look at problems, we see them so differently. There’s a particular country manager that she’s hired, and she’s saying: He just doesn’t see when clients are giving clear signals.
And so I asked: What do you do in those moments?
She said: I have to take the reins back because we can’t lose those clients, or we can’t afford not to expand with those clients, or we can’t afford not to make those sales.
I said: Okay, so if I’m this new country manager who’s just finding my footing, and who thinks differently from you, and who solves problems differently from you, and every time you see something that doesn’t make sense, my experience as your country manager is you take the reins back… What do you think that feels like? How do you think I’m going to perform as your country manager?
And there was this a-ha moment in the conversation. There weren’t extenuating circumstances for the country manager, but this CEO recognized that his performance could be materially affected by her involvement. I think the powerful thing there was not that she said, oh I have to butt out – because it’s not really an option to stand at a distance and see how it goes for a long time (the company doesn’t have the capital to do that long term experiment) – but actually to say to her country manager: hey, I recognize the way that I’ve been operating could be undermining, and it comes from a place for me of never having been able to do this well before, to set somebody else up for success who’s not like me.
And so when you were speaking, it brought to mind a similar situation that maybe feels a little bit more every day for folks.
It’s a beautiful example. So let’s go through it. We’ve been talking about personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is incredibly hard because it has to start with self-acceptance. And self-acceptance is the scariest thing a human being can do. It takes more courage to accept yourself than it does to do anything else, and the root of a lot of problems that managers go through is a lack of self-acceptance. And the lack of self-acceptance comes from a fear of insufficiency.
The first thing in your story is the self-acceptance of the CEO you’re working with – that they don’t know how to do this. How incredibly scary is that? To say, I am responsible for something I don’t know how to do. When we talked two weeks ago about this new land, where after 40 years of low interest rates, we have high interest rates but we also have labor disruptions, growth disruptions, and all of these things going on. You’re in this strange new land, and you’ve got no playbook, so you have to learn into the playbook that makes sense for you to navigate that. What we were saying is, you first have to look at yourself in the mirror and say: It’s on me. I am responsible for charting the path out of this jungle.But I don’t know what I’m doing. And so you have to start with that self-acceptance.
The self-acceptance creates an opportunity for personal responsibility. The personal responsibility takes the form of a behavior that Angie, you know all too well. We practice it here at Talentism every day: ‘SWM’ or Start With Me, which is how you as a leader, or anybody who’s a member of a community or an enterprise, comes to a conversation with a recognition of where you’re at, what’s happening to you, how you feel about it, and gap to goal.
So in your example, the gap to goal is: There are things I don’t know as CEO, I don’t know how to hire country managers, I don’t know how to manage country managers, and I don’t know how to figure out whether a country manager is working well or not. In absence of that self-knowledge – absence of the self-acceptance that leads to that self-knowledge – what are you going to do? You’re going to freak out every time something happens that doesn’t comport with your mental model of how it should work. When the country manager doesn’t do exactly what you expect, even though you probably haven’t really communicated what you expect, you have confusion – you expect one thing and you experience another, and the gap between the two is confusion.
Confusion is a physiologically uncomfortable response to a potential threat in the environment. It’s an unproductive response from a learning perspective. So you have to figure out what to do, but you’re not really paying attention to yourself. You’re so deep in your belief that you’re right, that you immediately go and pull back the reins. You have an autonomic, habituated response to a threat reaction where you just go pull back the reins. No learning, no experimentation. You are setting yourself up for failure. Not just the failure of scale, i.e. you can’t do everything nor will you successfully only hire people who are just like you – but also the failure to learn and actually figure out all of those things and how to get better at them. You don’t know whether the country manager’s approach is better than yours. There are certain things you probably do know. Angie, your client probably knows her clients better than the country manager knows those clients, that makes sense. But she only knows them in a certain context. She knows them in the context of what she’s like, what they’re like together, and that period of growth for a company. She only knows them in that context, and when the context shifts, she’s out of her depth – as we all would be, and so you have to learn into that.
I think your coaching was excellent, to open up your client’s mind about everything that she may be missing, and to get them to take some personal responsibility, and to start with them. The real crux of the matter after that is: how do you run small experiments? How do you figure out who’s going to be best to goal, when you don’t know? How are you going to figure out whether the country manager has a better approach or not?
You could design that experiment. You could design a one-week sprint, where you call up your most trusted client and say, I’d like to have you deal with this person and I need your partnership to help me see whether they’re going to be good. And I bet your client would love that, and be willing to help you on that. Have the country manager take a leap at it, see how it goes. You’re safe. It’s not going to ruin the account because you’ve already set expectations with the client. All bad outcomes are good outcomes. There are ways you can experiment and learn into this. And in that, you create safety so the country manager can learn with you. More importantly, you can learn. Because it may be that you’ve set up a business that is so peculiar and unique, that really there are only unicorns who can sell. Those businesses exist. Maybe you set that business up. But you don’t know that for sure, and you would have to go out and get evidence to figure that out.
You can hold the fear you have of people not doing exactly what you’ve done, and believe that what you’ve done is why you’re successful and and here today (and to be clear, that’s usually not true), or you can step back and say, I need to keep evolving and learning. Self-acceptance leads to personal responsibility. Personal responsibility takes the form of Start With Me. Start With Me opens up the field to create experiments which require creativity, which happen better in safety than in accusation, and you can learn faster together than in a whipsaw it’s-all-yours-no-I’m-taking-it-back – which may or may not lead to some short term success, but definitely leads to no learning.
This particular scenario – the one in which the leader feels they need to know it all, or at least project that they know it all, in order to inspire confidence and create followership – is one we encounter so often. And I hear you suggesting a contrarian approach, which is: expose the fact that you as leader don’t know it all, and use that starting point as strength to create openness and safety with the people you’re trying to create followership with. Because if you go the I-know-it-all path, eventually, you’ll be exposed. You’ll create an unhealthy dynamic in which that fear comes up, and you feel like you need to take the wheel, but you’re not sure you yourself are going to get it right. And there’s no actual resolution around whose path is actually going to help the company win here.
So instead, in those moments where you feel the need to project “I know it all, I know how to do this, I know how to lead you,” actually lean into the “I don’t know,” because that creates the room for experimentation, that creates the room to say: let’s learn what the right approach here is together.
That’s right. Courage is strength. If the ultimate courage is acknowledging that you don’t know, then the ultimate strength is acknowledging that you don’t know. Every leader who listener and readers are inspired by – historical leader, not the current crop of misfits – has stood by “I don’t know, but we’ll get there together,” “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” “I don’t know how we’ll get there, but we’ll get there together.” These are all statements of “I don’t know at this point in time, an existential crisis, exactly what to do. The situation is too big, hair, and novel for me to have any sort of confidence or arrogance that there is a clear path to success. Instead, I am committed to a way of doing things. I’m committed to the courage of leadership, of how we are going to create that future together.” And in that moment, you are unleashing potential, and you are not seen as weak. We have been brought up in this environment that teaches us – especially men – that if you say you’re wrong, or that you don’t know, you are weak.
In reality, you are weak when you hide from that. That is the ultimate weakness. Anybody who understands that – that you have that arrogance stemming from a fear of acknowledging that you don’t know – and understands human beings, can take advantage of you. It’s the ultimate stress point and failure point of all conflicted relationships. So courage is strength, and the courage of saying, I don’t know, but I do know how to learn, and I do know how from that learning to succeed – that is the path of strength.
There were a few – I don’t know if paradox is the right word – surprising conjunctions in today’s conversation that I’ll highlight as we leave off.
The first one I heard you say is: in the moments when one feels helpless because the thing that’s upsetting them feels outside of them, the path to change is actually through personal responsibility. Even in the face of systemic injustice or bad actors, it might feel like, how could I possibly change this and why should I, it’s not my fault – the only lever for real change, for learning in that situation, is personal responsibility, is starting with, what is my role? What can I learn? I think that is really powerful.
Another one that you shared was: it all starts with radical self-acceptance. When we talk about self-acceptance – especially when we’re talking about flaws and a leader who might be taking responsibility for what they don’t know, or for situations that they’re creating that feel difficult for the people around them – it might feel like we’re letting that leader off the hook. They get to say, I’ll never change. I am the way I am, I’ve been doing this for decades. But radical self-acceptance is definitely not about letting oneself off the hook.
Radical self-acceptance is saying, this is what I’m like, now what? Putting those two things together is the key. This is what I’m like (self-acceptance), now what (personal responsibility)? That’s the basis of the practice which you mentioned we do at Talentism – Start With Me. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s about recognizing the lens you bring to a situation, and the impact that you create, and thinking, now that I understand that, what’s a productive way forward for me and the people I want to get to the finish line with?
I found this chat really illuminating. So thank you, Jeff.
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Angie. I always love these conversations with you.